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A film of two halves,
This review is from: New York New York [DVD] (DVD)
"New York, New York" - released in 1977 - was (and remains) something of a departure for Scorsese, turning away from the gritty, violent realities of his earlier films "Mean Streets" and the just-finished "Taxi Driver" - the only break between "Taxi Driver" and "New York, New York" was to wait for Robert De Niro to finish filming on Bernardo Bertolucci's "1900". But the freedom provided by this departure, and the success of "Taxi Driver", turned out to have a negative impact on "New York, New York", as Scorsese says in the book Scorsese on Scorsese:
"After winning the Cannes Golden Palm for 'Taxi Driver', we got big heads and felt that no script was good enough. For example, we shot for weeks on the opening scene where De Niro picks up Liza Minnelli, and the original cut of this alone ran one hour...It was a experimental situation and, in retrospect, I don't think we should have been given that free a hand. It was a mess, and it's a miracle that the film makes any kind of sense."
Scorsese chose to shoot this film on set, rather than on location, partly to pay homage to the Hollywood musicals that he grew up watching (and as such, it ties into his more recent "film-history" film, 2011's "Hugo"). He wanted to capture the New York kerbs of these films that, he says in his introduction to the film, were always too high, and the disorienting sense of a film universe full of extras who are clearly dressed in far more expensive clothes than they could ever afford. But he also wanted to try imposing more realistic characterisation on this unrealistic universe, to see if and how the two could fit together.
One of his tried-and-tested techniques for presenting this atmosphere of realism is getting his characters to improvise, but he soon learned that the unfamiliar, artificial universe of sets and the familiar, authentic technique of improvisation were not made to fit together. From Scorsese on Scorsese again:
"We were trying to keep the technique of improvisation and documentary approach in the foreground, with the artifice of the fake sets in the background. But you have to build the sets in advance, which means you're not being practical, because once you start improvising in one set you soon improvise your way out of that set into another situation. In the meantime, they're building a different set because it's in the script! So you have to go back and shoot some more to get yourself back in line to use that second set - and that's one of the reasons why the scenes are so long."
The film consequently has its weaknesses, not least the overly long scene of De Niro hitting on Minnelli (about 15 minutes in the 163-minute extended version). But the whole first half of this extended version is packed full of scenes that go on too long, and that consequently lack the usual Scorsese-fired drive.
[SPOILER WARING] The film only kicks into life in the second half (about 75 minutes in), after Minnelli tells De Niro she is pregnant and the tensions between the two protagonists - the authentic emotion and characterisation that Scorsese wanted to impress upon this artificial world - come to the fore. The pregnancy sends the pair off in different directions, as Minnelli's (Francine Evans') inability to travel splits up her double act with De Niro (Jimmy Doyle), sending De Niro on the road with his new band as Minnelli stays at home. But her singing talent is quickly recognised and she is soon signed up by Decca records, propelling her into the realm of super-stardom. As De Niro's new band lacks the magic of his Minnelli double act, he soon loses his regular gigs and her success sends him spiralling off into jealousy and furious rages, one of which sends Minnelli into labour.
The pair go their separate ways, then seem set to reunite in a classic Hollywood - but utterly fake - happy ending, yet Scorsese resists the easy solution and has both characters fail to turn up at the Chinese restaurant at which they had arranged to meet - both having realised that, despite their love for one another, their ineluctable loves for music in something that is always going to drive a wedge between them and that it is therefore better for both of them if they lead separate lives.
It is a mature, realistic happy ending - the kind that Scorsese has himself after finishing the film:
"I was extremely disappointed when the movie was finished because I had had a really bad experience making it. But over the years I've been able to see that it has truth to it. I still don't really like it, yet in a way I love it."
If anyone out there is new to Scorsese, this is not the place to start exploring his films. But for long-standing fans of his work - especially his work with De Niro - this is an interesting, if not fully satisfying, watch.