When Martin Scorsese’s filmography is explored, there are typically two efforts that define his oeuvre: 1976’s “Taxi Driver” and 1980’s “Raging Bull.” However, during this fertile creative period there was another picture, sandwiched in-between, a 1977 feature that effectively stalled and oddly reenergized Scorsese’s career. “New York, New York” isn’t a forgotten or lost picture, but one that’s rarely brought up when a discussion of the maestro is introduced. A shame, really. While it’s flawed and fattened, it’s one of Scorsese’s more appealing experiments, looking to resuscitate the traditional Hollywood musical within the raw mood of the 1970s, creating an unusually frosty, but pleasingly unpredictable candy-coated psychodrama.It’s the end of WWII and saxophone player Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) is looking for a good time, stepping into the path of USO singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), who is skilled at refusing his advances. A frightfully determined man, Jimmy pursues Francine until he breaks her spirit, with the couple embarking on a musical career, facing bookers more interested in her voice than his jazz-influenced musicianship and red-hot temper. Struggling to make a name for himself, Jimmy’s destructive ways take their toll on Francine, whose passive nature and eventual pregnancy keep her pinned down, allowing her husband further control. As the years pass, the two struggle to define their union, leaving Jimmy and Francine to wonder if they’re better off apart.
"Shoes still vagabonding"
It’s always a treat to find a director interested in paying tribute to the seminal motion pictures of his cinematic education, with Scorsese perhaps the finest student around. “New York, New York” is patterned off the glorious Technicolor achievements of the 1940s and ‘50s, most notably the work of Vincente Minnelli -- an influence so charged, the filmmaker employs the man’s daughter as his star. In love with an era of big colors, cavernous sets, and squeezed emotions, Scorsese orchestrates a thrilling return to simplicity and glamour, designing a bold picture of artifice and nostalgia, creating his own sandbox of old Hollywood delights. It’s a stagebound valentine, but one vigorously constructed down to the last detail, with Scorsese reveling in the costumes and music. It’s an itch that spreads into a full-body rash in the final act.
While elaborately decorated and colored, the characterizations of “New York, New York” are rooted firmly in the 1970s, with a hostile tone to Jimmy and Francine’s relationship that darkens the light Scorsese is sweating hard to maintain. The screenplay communicates an unease between the couple, presenting Jimmy as a domineering force who won’t take no for an answer. The picture isn’t a love story, it’s a tale of resignation and control, with Francine looking queasy throughout most of the movie, browbeaten into submission by her bullying husband. It’s unusual to find a film so utterly consumed with the formula of romance refuse to participate in warm human interaction, but that’s part of the feature’s askew charm and effort of genre criticism. Scorsese works diligently to make a sensitive story about two people who don’t even like each other, boosted by surprising performances from Minnelli and De Niro, who blends a little Bickle into his performance as Jimmy, bravely playing a callous, unromantic figure desperate to find a suitable creative outlet.
“New York, New York” eventually reveals itself to be a complex story of behavior, not escapism. As much as the movie’s cinematography suggests broad entertainment, the script keeps to a routine of argument and intimidation, which is difficult to digest over the 160-minute run time, a motion picture length that intermittently morphs into a prison when De Niro and Minnelli chase a few improvisational contests. Still, that gritty feel makes for an interesting commotion, especially with the filmmaker indulging his fantasies any chance his gets, staging massive crowd scenes, musical performances, and ornately lit club gatherings. “New York, New York” is rough, but it’s never unconvincing, thanks to such extraordinary directorial authority.Following Francine as she takes on the bright lights of Hollywood, the final act of “New York, New York” explodes with choreography and color, with Scorsese rabidly staging orgasmic musical numbers teeming with dancers and vast sets, thwacking the image with magic dust as Minnelli soars into song and dance. It’s a happy place that takes two hours to arrive, but once planted, Scorsese doesn’t let the audience down. The full-blown musical recreation is immensely satisfying, though it mucks with the steady psychological rhythm of the picture. It’s a jubilant conclusion with bittersweet punctuation, permitting Scorsese to kick up his heels while tending to the central relationship with some refreshing honesty, leaving this strange, but effective enterprise with a lasting hold.
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originally posted: 09/13/11 09:00:57