Somewhere deep within, director Martin Scorsese had surely hit a form of rock bottom. Burnout, perhaps. He had hit the high of Taxi Driver, and while cooler heads have prevailed in recent years, initial readings and reception of the film were less than stellar. What better way to get into the good books of the Hollywood system than to make a musical? New York, New York, the Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli-led feature, is by no means bad. It is simply not the classics we know Scorsese is capable of crafting time and time again. Considering Taxi Driver was the project before it, and Raging Bull the fictional work to follow a brief interlude with documentary filmmaking for the great Scorsese, this romantic drama blurring musical connotations feels like a low ebb in a career full of highs.
Post-war winnings and the iconography it provided are interspersed throughout. With greasy hair and a Hawaiian shirt, De Niro pushes his way through the crowd and is soon lost within. New York, New York is lost within that colourful filmography of Scorsese’s, never standing out but always lingering on the edge of acknowledgement. It is better if we do not, and impressive the direction may be, the film never works up the courage to show the colour and delightful notes of jazz and the innovation it brings. If your leads are to be jazz singers, then surely it would make more sense to have this as an aspect of their character, not just as a backdrop. De Niro and Minnelli are much the same with or without this addendum.
Anyone can apply a coat of paint. New York, New York may have the aesthetics of a rewarding period for music history, but its characters are interchangeable, and the actors portraying them are doing what they can to keep it all afloat. Once the party around them is swinging, and that post-war elation is founded, New York, New York comes to life. It is brief, and much of it is gluttonous in its presentation. Lots of tracking cameras, coasting around the edges of a large party. We are never given intimacy, even when Francine (Minelli) and Jimmy (De Niro) are alone. There is always a disconnect present, an uncomfortable reminder that these are not real people. Scorsese never usually falls to these issues, but it feels as though this is due more to the performances than the direction at times.
Hokey and dislikeable, the leading pair have their work cut out for them. These are performers who have given their all everywhere else, but their senseless adaptation to the horrible characters that litter the streets of The Big Apple feels like a waste and a sham. Jazz is such an inherently beautiful aspect of culture to be found on these bustling streets, it is a shame Scorsese doesn’t know what to do with it. He surely appreciates it and music in general. Why else would he craft so many documentaries that are both well-researched and passionate? His passion is still encapsulated in the bravado and encouragement found within New York, New York, but his efforts are futile and lack that magic, personal innovation found in so many of his other features.