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the last great musical? (contains spoilers),
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This review is from: New York New York [DVD] (DVD)
The late 70s/early 80s saw three of Hollywood's wonderkids stumble and suffer serious commercial flops: Steven Spielberg with "1941", his homage to the madcap screwball movies of the early 60s, Francis Ford Coppola with his Zeotrope studio projects such as the noir-ish "Hammett" and the Las Vegas musical "One from the Heart", and Martin Scorsese with his epic "New York New York". All these films, with their period nuances, garish colours reminiscent of 50s musicals like "An American in Paris" and an obvious fondness for the heyday of the Hollywood studio system when so much was created on a soundstage, suggest a back-burner project that the directors' fame and clout could now drive through and green-light. Of these films, Scorsese's has probably weathered best. Yes, the story is slight and cut from the well-trodden "boy-meets-girl/gotta sing, gotta dance" mould with little embellishment but, boy, it looks good. It opens on VJ night in 1945, with Robert de Niro's arrogant and recently demobbed saxophonist Jimmy Doyle trying to get off with still-in-uniform singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) at a victory party. Despite her best efforts to shake him off, Francine finds herself in the same hotel as Doyle and uncomfortably sharing a taxi with him next day as she goes for an audition, only to be hijacked away to Jimmy's own audition for a jazz band. Once there, Doyle quickly antagonizes the club owner until quick-thinking Francine starts singing, at which point the owner offers them joint work. And so a professional and personal relationship is born. Soon they find themselves sharing both the stage, her as featured singer and him as a saxophone player in a touring big band, and a bed as love blossoms, despite their rather abrasive relationship (de Niro plays Doyle basically as a regular male chauvenist pig who has to have the last word on everything). Jimmy though is distainful of the big band sound and yearns to be a radical jazz player with his own group, writing his own tunes, whereas Francine would prefer to settle down, have a family and concentrate on radio and recording work. The odds are always against this relationship ever lasting longer than five minutes.
Despite looking uncomfortably like Daisy Duck in her 40s/50s hairstyles and hats, Minnelli blasts through some great songs during the course of this film and delivers (for me) the definitive version of the title tune at the end of the movie in what looks like an homage to one of her late mother's cabaret performances. It's probably her best film this side of "Cabaret". De Niro famously learnt to play sax so that his finger movements would look authentic and briefly sings extremely badly. However, it's his performance as the unlikeable and selfish Doyle that probably has led to the film having had such a bad reception. His character basically throws a relentless and rather one-dimensional tantrum throughout the entire film - there's nothing remotely likeable about this guy at all. Even I get tired of the sight and sound of de Niro bullying and shouting at Minnelli (and others) in scene after scene. Scorsese clearly set out to recreate the opulence of the old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, most obviously with a typical show-within-a-show segment near the end, the "Happy Endings" section that was cut from the original theatrical release, but he also appears to have tried to splice in some of the gritty realism from "Mean Streets" or "Taxi Driver". And therein lies the problem; the two just don't gel. To (mis)quote the late great John Peel on the 70s penchant for progressive rock bands recording with full orchestras, "it's a bit like sticking a hairbrush on the back of a rat and calling it a hedgehog". You can't have a heated row one minute and then go to a full-on musical number recreated in the classical Hollwood musical style. For all it's scenic beauty, the film judders repeatedly as it swings back and forth between songs and shouty bits. There's also several attempts to introduce a bit of screwball comedy (Doyle's "wooden leg" schtick, for example, as he tries to dodge paying a hotel bill) that don't quite come off. De Niro is no Cary Grant. But despite the flaws, overall NYNY remains a glorious failure, streets ahead of our own Julian Temple's "Absolute Beginners" (another nostalgic musical project that was over-reliant on recreating everything within the confines of the studio) and possibly the last great musical of the 20th century. And Minnelli, though never everybody's cup of tea, does sing her socks off on more than one occasion (most notably as Francine is recording "The World Goes Round" and during the Happy Endings set-pieces). Great to now be able to compare both the original theatrical release and the extended version with Happy Endings re-inserted in it's proper place on this sensibly-priced DVD release.