The initial response to Martin Scorsese's New York, New York was fairly unanimous: it was a failure. Time has been fairly gentle on this film, but it's not hard to see why audiences and critics in 1977 were so disappointed: if nothing else, the director's earlier films like Mean Streets, Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More and Taxi Driver had all been united in their sometimes painful emotional rawness, whereas New York, New York is above all things noteworthy for its startling audacity and conceptual bravura. It's the exact kind of craziness that could only have been made in the waning days of the 1970s: a genre experiment combining the most artificial of classical Hollywood forms - the MGM musical - with the griminess of then-contemporary social realism, finding a kind of cocked discipline only in that the outsized 163-minute version in which it's currently available is 40% shorter than the first director's cut, staking almost all of its emotional impact on the chemistry which was sure to bloom between Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli. The question of whether it succeeds is almost completely swallowed up in the amazing fact that it exists at all. Regular readers will be unsurprised to learn that I loved it so much that I'd like to name my first-born child in its honor.
In his DVD introduction to the film, Scorsese explains - and incidentally, I'd like to say something that has already been said a thousand times over, which is that listening to Marty Scorsese talking film theory is one of the key pleasures in life. It's readily clear that he knows more about movies than just about any filmmaker except for perhaps Jean-Luc Godard, and with Scorsese, you never have the feeling that he actually hates the entire art form - that New York, New York was effectively born out of a single impulse: to combine the high-artifice visuals of classic musicals with the small and intimate performance style favored in the post-Method '70s, just to see what would happen. That kind of open-ended experimentation makes it almost impossible to correctly judge NY,NY a "failure," and also explains why it's so damned appealing. You get the sense that the movie itself is just working things out as it goes along, and that brings with it a free feeling, that we're supposed to play with the movie rather than think about it. The idea of the audience playing with a film that a director already completed may seem silly, but this is the reason that films such as this one matter: it surely doesn't hang together in any of the usual ways we judge cinema, but it drifts apart in such a characteristic way that we're almost forced to consider the unusual ways that it makes perfect sense it its own private way.
The scenario: it's V-J Day, and everybody is magnificently happy, and as Scorsese's camera pans all over the celebrations in Times Square with his characteristically orgasmic control of long takes and crane shots, we settle in on Jimmy Doyle (De Niro). Jimmy is basically a louse: before the nearly three hours we'll know him are up, we'll know that he's emotionally abusive and domineering, untrustworthy, prone to skipping out on hotel bills (he even has a false identity made up for that habit: Michael Powell, better known as the British director who has long been one of Scorsese's stated influences). In the first moments we see him, he's a terribly unsuccessful predator moving from one pretty girl to another with the mustiest collection of pick-up lines you ever did see, archaic even for 1945. The thing is, Jimmy Doyle the Louse is also one hell of a good saxophone player. It's this fact that ultimately leads Francine Evans (Minnelli), one of the girls he failed to make it with, to fall a little bit - in fact, a lot - in love with him. Because Francine wants to be a singer, and it's not all that surprising, given the kind of movie this is and the actress playing her, that she's even better in her field than Jimmy is in his. So these two completely mismatched lovebirds - one a typical Scorsese brute, the other a vanishing female who only comes into her own when she's belting out pop standards - spend most of a movie falling so much in love they can't control it, and being very nearly destroyed in the process.
Musicals with a joyless edge are quite a bit more familiar now than they were in 1977, but even by today's standards, NY,NY is a rather startling contrast in tones. That's not a criticism, really, it's a statement of intent. It's hardly reasonable to try and explain what that contrast means to the audience, given that I've already called the film a toy for the individual viewer to pick up and examine. I can say that for this particular viewer, a great fan of both the '70s New Hollywood Cinema and the Freed Unit at MGM in the '40s and '50s, what I primarily came away with was a heightened understanding about what I liked about the older films, as the elements of that genre were presented in a highly decontextualised atmosphere.
Aesthetically, that's one of the primary achievements of the film, regardless of one's personal biases: Scorsese obviously knows his old-school studio musicals and he obviously loves them, and he obviously enjoys tinkering with them as well. This reaches its highest expression near the end, in a sequence that was cut from the original release and restored in 1981: the "Happy Endings" number. It's not hard to find complaints that this is a horrid interruption in the narrative flow (it's not much harder to find comments that it's the only part of the film that completely works), but that's kind of exactly the point: the number is in a few places a shot-specific homage to the "Broadway Melody" sequence in Singin' in the Rain (I counted three shots, but I wasn't really watching for it), but more generally it's a reference to the brief vogue for twenty-minute non-diegetic ballets in the final quarter of MGM musicals, and in virtually every one of those films, the practice has been decried and praised for how fully it interrupts the films' narrative flow.
Hurrah, Scorsese recreated a classic flaw of old movies. Well, yes, but the point here as in the rest of the film is what that reveals about the film culture he was working in and the film culture he loved from his youth. That's what I meant by "decontextualised atmosphere": in what was very clearly the director's intent (even before he confirmed it in the DVD intro), NY,NY is a study in how extra-false the agreeable fiction of the musical looks when it's set in a version of the city that isn't a fairy tale (if I can have a moment of pretension, I'd like to argue that the title of the film isn't really saying "New York City, NY", but pointing out the two New Yorks - one that glitters on MGM soundstages, one that's greasy and dirty and mean in the real world). The effect is twofold: the first and more obvious is how it calls attention to the ways in which those wonderful old pictures were a package of lies, admittedly lies that we've all agreed are lies and we watch them in full knowledge that we're watching lies and that's part of the appeal of the film, but it's still a jolt, and not at all a bad one, to really just sit down and think about what it means that we all agree to admire those lies for two hours while we watch Judy Garland sing on streets that don't exist. The second, and perhaps more interesting effect is that it suggests that Scorsese's milieu of casual realism - a milieu he shared with almost all the important American filmmakers of the period - is just as much a fictional construct. I mean, if we can make Robert De Niro an MGM musical character, what does that say about Taxi Driver?
All this reduces New York, New York to the status of an extended thought piece, and maybe that's all it is - you could do that in the late '70s and nobody would particularly complain. But before I leave this film, which I personally found to be one hell of an enjoyable ride, I'd like to observe that if it didn't exist, we would be left in a world where we wouldn't know what it's like when Liza Minnelli sings the title song by John Kander and Fred Ebb. That, I think it goes without saying, is not a world worth thinking about for very long.