New York, New York ★★★½

25 Films x 4 Decades: 1970s
Ranked: Martin Scorsese

It would be disingenuous to cite New York, New York as anything more than "lesser Scorsese". Fortunately, in a career as long and illustrious as his, that is hardly a damning statement to make. Celebrating musicals and jazz, Scorsese's sole attempt at a musical is a big, loud, and deeply New York affair. While it can be a bit messy at times, the power of its jazzy notes is impossible to deny, while the pairing of Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli is too appealing to not be at least mildly appetizing. All under the direction of a legend of the director's chair in an early period work, New York, New York winds up sticking the landing even if there is some significant turbulence along the way.

Culminating with Liza Minnelli's now classic singing of "New York, New York", the film of the same name is always going to be somewhat pleasant, if only for Scorsese's heavy celebration of jazz. Throughout the film, Scorsese strings together a slacking narrative and then always picks things up with a gorgeously executed big band number that celebrated the instruments without having to say so. When Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) goes in on the saxophone at a higher tempo, firing up his bandmates and getting Cecil Powell (Clarence Clemons) to match that tempo with his trumpet, the crowd responds appropriately with higher-paced dancing and joy through the roof. Scorsese's film, for all its faults, highlights the thrill and draw of music. He articulates the power and infectious nature of the medium without having to call attention to the fact, while also celebrating intimate performances and the struggles faced by the musicians that deliver excellent renditions every night. Like the eulogizing of jazz in La La Land, Scorsese captures the chaos, music, and beautifully synchronized nature of the musical genre that encourages indulgence and feeling the moment.

Along the way, Scorsese also manages to celebrate musicals and Broadway, especially in the "Happy Endings" sequence. With Minnelli's Francine Evans turning into a star who gets cast in a big Hollywood movie about an upcoming star cast in a Broadway play, Scorsese celebrates the extravagance of the stage and how it is portrayed on the silver screen. With a loud and chaotic sequence, the scene shows the film's most classically theatrical number with exquisite and extravagant choreography to match. It allows Minnelli, along the with "New York, New York", to showcase her beautiful set of pipes, but also allows Scorsese to include a classic musical number into his intimate jazz film. While perhaps not necessarily jiving with the rest of the film, as a slice of Scorsese's need to honor the films that influenced him is always a great cinematic treat due to how well executed it always is, no matter the film or genre.

As with many musicals before it, however, the film is far too long. Scorsese gets a bit too indulgent here, particularly with the story. Rather bland and touching on themes that Scorsese would explore better in films such as Goodfellas or Casino, the film continuously beats home that Jimmy is an asshole. At every turn, he abuses Francine or runs off on her and their son. He is a bad guy for the most part and the film takes every opportunity to remind you of this fact. While the film smartly avoids a "happy ending" where the two wind up rushing back into one another's arms in the rain, Scorsese really beats home the point that he is a bad guy and that Francine deserves better for far too long. Many scenes exist just to show how abrasive and violent he can be, which had just been explained in the scene prior. While it removes any bit of sympathy we may have for the man, the film still winds up wrapping up with them not getting back together. It strikes me that Scorsese tried to conjure up a "missed connection" or "the one that got away" type of ending, but instead made a "thank God Francine got away from this monster" ending. Had he not continuously made the audience hate Jimmy, it is possible he could be a redeemable and sympathetic figure. Unfortunately, much of the film's runtime exists just to tear the man apart.

A classic Scorsese husband/boyfriend, Jimmy abuses his wife emotionally, is prone to violent outbursts, and hates to see his wife do anything that does not directly benefit him. Should she succeed in any way, he immediately gets mad because it is not his success. When she does something - like get pregnant - he offers some back-handed support and finds passive aggressive ways to emotionally punish her for her failure to do something to benefit Jimmy. He is a selfish, violent, and highly unlikable brute of a man that has very little in the way of redeeming qualities. He is a good musician, but that is about it to be completely honest. Otherwise, he is largely just a repugnant jerk. Scorsese, as previously mentioned, beats this point home, but De Niro does play it well and Scorsese knows his way around an asshole protagonist. Alongside him, Minnelli plays the sympathetic wife/girlfriend who tries to rise up against her husband, but is still deeply in love with him and he loves her in his own messed up way. The film, for all its faults, does seem to capture this amidst its sea of Jimmy's inability to actually show his love or treat her right. At the center of it all, the two do love one another and it is obviously a shame that Francine is never able to crack Jimmy's cold and rough exterior.

An overlong film for how simple and straight forward the plot is, New York, New York is very much a Scorsese film even if he is not exactly known for musicals. For an abusive protagonist who loves his wife, but does not respect her, the film's romantic center is very much up Scorsese's alley and provides the main story, which is probably not ideal. In exploring this same theme in the aforementioned Goodfellas or Casino, it is relegated to a supporting role to the other elements in the film. Here, in focusing on it, Scorsese finds himself with a thinly plotted film that hardly justifies being nearly three hours. Fortunately, he does bolster it up a bit by indulging in the celebration of his influences, which is another trait of us. Celebrating New York City, Broadway, Hollywood musicals, and jazz, in equal measure, New York, New York is an explosive musical affair that shows why it is a medium that is so pleasing and infectious amongst every person with a pulse. It, if well-played, can capture the mind and spirit like few other mediums of artistic expression can. Here, in this film, excellent music, saxophone playing, and beautiful singing by Minnelli, provide it with that beating heart that is capable of overcoming its bloated runtime. By the end, for all of its indulgences, New York, New York is lesser Scorsese, but still a winner.