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USA 1977
Directed by
Martin Scorsese
156 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

New York, New York

Like a lot of people, I saw this film about the rocky relationship between a egotistical saxophone player. Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), and an aspiring young singer, Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), who meet on V-J Day, at the time it was originally released and dismissed it as an aberration (it followed on from a string of stylistically consistent critical and box offices successes for Scorsese, including Taxi Driver from the previous year). Many years later I saw it on video and changed my opinion radically, a quite common change of heart apparently. A third viewing some years later largely confirmed the re-evaluation 

Scorsese wanted to make a film about 1940/50s jazz that, time-warp-wise, actually looked like a film about jazz  that had been made in 1940/50s. The result is an unusual musical that for eccentricity almost matches Coppola's One From The Heart (1982). The highly artificial look of MGM '40's musicals combined with Scorsese's trademark polished visual style makes for a slightly surreal experience. This and De Niro who was criticized for his unsympathetic characterisation of the volatile musician seems to have put a lot of people off on its initial release and film flopped.

Unfortunately I couldn't get over Minnelli's Daisy Duck looks, which are particularly evident in the early stages of the film and which substantially undermine her supposedly irresistible appeal to Doyle but like her mother in the thematically-related A Star Is Born (1954) she belts out some fabulous tunes (and in so doing virtually becomes Judy Garland), including the title song written by John Kander and Fred Ebbs, better known in the Frank Sinatra version (and which is different from the song of the same name that he performed in the 1949 Leonard Bernstein/Adolph Green/Betty Comden musical, On The Town). Looks aside, Minnelli's singing really is the film's trump card. De Niro who learned the saxophone specifically for the film does a great job of mimicking a real sax player (the actual music was played by Georgie Auld who appears here as the band leader, Frankie Auld) and he and Minnelli work surprisingly well together (according to Steven Prince, Scorsese's assistant on the film, both De Niro and Scorsese had affairs with Minnelli during the production).

The production design by Boris Leven is fabulous, the music stretching from Big Band to Be-Bop is tip-top, and the superb wide screen photography is by veteran Lazlo Kovacs. Originally released at a 153 mins, then quickly cut to 137 mins, it was re-released in 1981 at 167 mins although the DVD release, the basis for this review, is 156 mins (apparently the original cut was four and a half hours long) with a big production number,"Happy Endings", restored, something which many rightly deem gratuitous but which is nevertheless a lot of fun.

Although the film's ending is unsatisfactory and structurally the divorce between Francine and Jimmy is weakly handled, New York, New York is a grossly under-rated musical - a lavish production with some great music helmed by one of Hollywood's modern masters. 

FYI: The original version of "Theme from New York, New York" was scrapped at the insistence of Robert De Niro for being too weak. Reluctantly, John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote a new version which has since become one of the most famous and often recorded songs in popular music history.




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