Martin Scorsese, “New York, New York” (1977)
One of Martin Scorsese’s most under-rated films, in my opinion, and in many ways an experimental and even surreal film, “New York, New York” scores in my little red book for subverting Hollywood stereotypes about boy-meets-girl / boy and girl fall in love / boy and girl fall out / boy and girl get back together again and live happily ever after, and the conventions of Hollywood film musicals at their biggest and brassiest. At once it’s Scorsese’s homage to Hollywood and Broadway musicals from the 1930s to the 1960s and his critique of the fantasy world that such musicals encouraged their viewers to hide in rather than face and deal with the humdrum realities of daily life or their personal issues. The film also showcases its lead star Liza Minnelli’s talent as a singer and actor and gives her the opportunity to race through more than her fair share of fantasy Hollywood / Broadway music numbers and mini-dramas that reference aspects of her mother Judy Garland’s career. At the heart of the film though is the romance between two flawed and dysfunctional human beings, their stormy relationship and how it influences their lives and leads them to pursue their own paths and creativity.
Jimmy Doyle (Robert de Niro), a recently returned World War II veteran and saxophonist, is out looking for fun and girls at a victory celebration when he spies Francine Evans (Minnelli) and starts pursuing her. De Niro’s playing of Doyle is electric and not a little reminiscent of his creepy and obsessive character Jake Lamotta in “Taxi Driver”, another Scorsese vehicle for his talent, and Doyle’s relentless stalking of Evans can have viewers on the edge of their seats. Doyle and Evans briefly play a week at a small night-club as a sax and singing duo before Evans high-tails back to her agent and her usual role as singer for a travelling jazz band. Doyle chases her and the band around the country and eventually joins the band as saxophonist, later becoming its leader. The film follows their tempestuous romance as it develops and blossoms into marriage and Evans’ pregnancy, and follows the consequences of Evans’ changed state as she decides to return to New York and take up a career recording albums. Doyle’s time as band-leader is short-lived due to his mercurial temperament and his having to replace Evans with a mediocre singer. From then on, the film sees Evans and Doyle drift further apart, Evans pursuing her recording career in a style of jazz Doyle increasingly finds stale and unchallenging while he is drawn to the more vibrant style of swing and bebop developing in the black neighbourhoods of New York.
The character development is steady if slow and at times Doyle’s insensitive, self-centred character with hints of instability and violence can be wearying. Evans displays worrying signs of codependency as she puts up with Doyle’s domineering nature and need to control her actions and decisions. Both de Niro and Minnelli are marvellous to watch as their characters bounce off each other and the stormy argument they have while they are driving away from a night-club is a sight to behold. The music is a third character in the film, fascinating to hear as it changes through the decades and splits into two parallel jazz styles that mirror the increasing psychological separation between Doyle and Evans.
Visually the film is a treat, culminating in the surreal Broadway number in which Evans, playing Peggy Smith in a show within a show, almost recapitulates her life through the story of an usherette who chances to meet a rich film producer who appreciates her talent and makes her a star. The film combines a lavish and richly glowing style of presentation, especially in scenes where Doyle and Evans are performing either together or separately, with a documentary-style realist treatment of the two characters’ relationship and the work they must do in writing and rehearsing their music, and travelling from one club gig to the next with their band in early scenes of the movie.
The film’s end which initially did not find favour with most audiences when it was first released, seems absolutely right to me: Doyle’s acceptance of Evans’ decision might demonstrate how much he may have matured over the years, realising that he cannot control Evans or their child forever and that his music and her music may never find common ground again. His music is moving ever forward, and he willingly and impulsively follows where it goes, whereas Evans seems stuck in an increasingly artificial music world where her career continues to be controlled by other men.
Viewers may find the film’s inter-twined themes about following one’s heart and the effect of that on one’s relationships with others, the nature of fame and how it tears people apart, and the clash between artificiality and realism intriguing if confusing and scattershot.