Music and movies have frequently gone hand-in-hand together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
New York, New York is not technically a musical in the conventional sense, but it is a film that has the musical genre in its bones. Sure enough, Martin Scorsese’s 1977 follow-up to Taxi Driver does boast a truly grandiose musical number, quite possibly one of the greatest sequences of the director’s career, but it is as much a deconstruction of what it must mean to be a character in the type of world that one cannot help but associate with classic MGM musicals.
On the surface, the film’s sense of stylistic artificiality might look to be one you would expect Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire to show up in, and certainly, the casting of Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli is a tip of the hat towards classical Hollywood musicals and productions from the so-called Golden Age.
However, this is a Scorsese-directed film and the male lead opposite Minnelli is Robert De Niro. This might look like a film from a bygone era, but it’s very much drenched with a sense of darkness one might associate with the 1970s and the era of New Hollywood.
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Ironically, New York, New York was released in a year that was about to see another seismic change in how Hollywood produced films. If the first half of the 1970s saw the emergence of the ‘Film Brats’ making their mark on the studio system which allowed directors such as Scorsese to get their foot in the door, delivering darker uncompromising visions such as his 1973 production Mean Streets, the latter half of the decade would shift towards a frothier style of escapism thanks to George Lucas bringing Star Wars to the screen. That same year would also see Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind strike a chord with cinema-goers, a more down to earth science fiction film compared to Lucas’ tribute to 1930’s serials, but which itself boasted incredible special visual effects and a sense of wonder.
Amongst those two films, Scorsese premiered New York, New York and it got somewhat lost in the shuffle of changing audience attitudes, being greeted with an indifferent response from critics, as well as disappointing box office. It might have looked like an MGM musical, but like Taxi Driver the year before, Scorsese plunged the audience into an emotionally entangled quagmire where Robert De Niro brought a high level of intensity to a leading character that is the embodiment of toxic masculinity.
The casting of Minnelli, the daughter of screen legend Judy Garland, is an acknowledgement of the past, and if Minnelli herself was part and parcel of New Hollywood, having at this point already won an Academy Award for Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, you get the sense watching her and De Niro on screen that we’re witnessing a coming together of two separate legacies, one with a foot in the past, the other in what was seen as Hollywood’s emerging future.
Interestingly, Francis Ford Coppola himself would be greeted with similar indifference, albeit on a greater scale, four years later with his own take on the musical genre. One From the Heart was another attempt to recreate the magical realism of past musicals with a modern eye and sensibility to the story, this time with an even grander sense of style, with a soundtrack written by Tom Waits and Crystal Gale.
Both films would have negative impacts on their directors. Coppola would go bankrupt having financed his film with his own money in an attempt to launch his own studio, American Zoetrope; Scorsese, on the other hand, would find the disappointing reception to his film taking a toll on his mental health. Sometimes a film can take time to find its feet and audience, as well as respect, and nowadays both New York, New York and One from the Heart are greeted more warmly by critics and fans of the directors.
After being openly critical of superhero films, in particular the Marvel Cinematic Universe in an interview with Empire Magazine upon the release of The Irishman in 2019, the director faced an onslaught of criticism from Marvel fans, that included being labelled as a director of nothing but mobster movies. Of course, that’s not true. Yes, the director has helmed some of the most iconic crime films in the history of film, but what gets lost amongst such discussion of his work is the power of his non-crime stories: The Age of Innocence, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Aviator, Raging Bull, The Silence, The King of Comedy and New York, New York.
His ability to lean into darker territory is perhaps what gives his 1977 tribute to Golden Age musicals such a potent spark. It’s a film that’s alive and in love with a style of filmmaking that wasn’t being done anymore, a style that was being erased by the more realistic production methods of directors like himself that favoured location filmmaking, jukebox soundtracks, and Method acting.
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Taxi Driver was a film that invested the audience and its characters in a nightmarish version of the city, but New York, New York feels dreamy and lovely, at least for the first half, before its central relationship becomes more toxic, even if the world around its characters never changes. It’s easy to look at older movies and decry the toxicity and problematic elements with them, but Mardik Martin and Earl Mac Rauch’s screenplay takes the poisonous air and makes it fully part of the story.
Right from its opening moments and its sequence depicting VJ Day celebrations, things feel off. Saxophone player Jimmy Doyle (De Niro) and his pursuit of Francine Evans (Minelli) feel a little icky or stalkerish, but the film allows a relationship to flourish and develop, turning to marriage and one that sees Francine bear a child.
However, the wheels come off as the film continues. Doyle is a De Niro character from a decade and era that saw him playing characters such as Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta. Even with the more respectful nature of young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, we were still dealing with someone who was a crime lord, even if he was one drenched in ideals of respect and care for his family and the community around him.
Doyle might be nominally the lead in a Golden Age-infused film where the sets are gorgeously artificial, the music and songs lush and romantic, but he increasingly flies off the handle as the film goes on, culminating in a moment of domestic violence against Francine while in their car that is horrifying to the extreme and emotionally brutal.
George Lucas allegedly told Scorsese, as documented in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, that the film might have made more money if the two characters stayed together at the end, but there is no future in this relationship. For them to stay together would be an emotional lie, not to mention weirdly wrong. Both characters get their big break; Jimmy eventually becomes a successful saxophonist and owner of a jazz club (as all white male jazz fans are prone to do in films), while Francine becomes a successful actress and singer.
The possibility of a reunion is dangled in front of both characters, with Jimmy asking Francine out for dinner. He waits, but she never shows up. She walks away and we, the audience, implore her to keep walking. The film doesn’t end with a kiss against a sunset or with the words ‘The End’ being emblazoned across the screen. Instead, the end credits roll against a rain-swept street, the world of the film’s narrative taking the right course.
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Its label as a flop has meant that the film can get lost in the mix when it comes to Scorsese’s more iconic works, but it’s honestly one of his very best films. While it might be easy to place it next to Coppola’s own commercially unappealing attempt at doing a stylistic musical, in truth New York, New York would make a better double bill with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.
Both films are love letters of sorts to the genre, revelling in the magic of song, dance and stories of conquering one’s dreams, but at the cost of love and relationships. Where La La Land hits you in the heart with the love that is lost, New York, New York is perhaps more cynical than that. Instead of feeling sad or bereft at what its leading characters lose out on when it comes to its conclusion, New York, New York insists that what happens is for the best.
Minelli and De Niro look movie star gorgeous when it comes to those final scenes, and you can imagine them walking off into the sunset as beautifully as any movie stars you could dream up, but while its best song might be called ‘Happy Endings’, sometimes the opposite of that is the only way to begin the end credits.