24 March 2005 | gftbiloxi
Often Brilliant In Spite of Major Flaws
Released in 1977, Martin Scorsese's NEW YORK, NEW YORK instantly divided critical response--and, facing box office competition from no less than STAR WARS, proved a major financial failure. A significantly edited re-release followed not long afterward but proved even less well received and even less profitable. Although a double VHS release eventually brought the film to the home market, the film remained unpopular and made barely a ripple in public consciousness. In 2005, however, NEW YORK, NEW YORK received an unexpected release to DVD. At long last it may begin to reach a significant audience.
As a story, NEW YORK, NEW YORK draws from a number of oddly "Noir-ish" musicals made at Warner Bros. in the late 1940s. Most particularly, according to Scorsese's commentary, it drew from MY DREAM IS YOURS, a film that not only starred Doris Day but actually reflected her life in its tale of a talented big band "girl singer" trapped in an abusive marriage with a musician. Although the film force-fed the audience a happy ending, later films would not. In the mid-1950s, Doris Day's LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME and Judy Garland's A STAR IS BORN offered stories of a gifted female vocalists locked into disastrous romances that played out to a very distinctly unhappy ending, and NEW YORK, NEW YORK draws from them as well.
Scorsese not only repeats the basic stories and themes of these films, he also repeats the artificially heightened visual style typical of Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s--it is no accident that Liza Minnelli looks and sings remarkably like mother Judy Garland in this film--but he does so to an entirely unexpected end. The bravado performing style of such films is completely snatched away, and the characters are presented in an almost documentary-like realism. In theory, each aspect of the film would emphasize the other; in fact, however, this was precisely what critics and audiences disliked about the film when it debuted. They considered it extremely grating.
But perhaps the passage of time has opened our eyes on the point. I saw NEW YORK, NEW YORK in its 1977 release and, music aside, I disliked it a great deal. I expected to retain that opinion when I approached the DVD release, but I was greatly surprised. It holds up remarkably well, and most of the time the balance of artifice and reality works very well. But there are significant flaws. In a general sense, the film has a cold feel to it that occasionally becomes so downright chilly you begin to detach from it. But even more difficult is the character of Jimmy Doyle, the abusive husband of the piece.
The recent DVD release includes a noteworthy director's commentary, and Scorsese states that both he and actor Robert De Niro sought to push the character far beyond the extremes of MY DREAM IS YOURS, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, or A STAR IS BORN. They were perhaps more successful than they expected. The result is a character you actively do not want to watch or hear, and although we are eventually allowed to see beyond his annoying qualities that moment comes much too late in the film to make him acceptable in any significant way. It makes for more than one bout of uphill viewing.
Overall, I recommend the film--but it is very much a "Hollywood Insider" film that is probably best left to those who know a great deal about film history and who can recognize the numerous antecedents from which it draws.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer