Scorsese: New York New York

Scorsese is one of my favourite auteurs and one of the best decisions he ever made was associating with the “movie brats” of the 1970s, in particular Brian De Palma who introduced him to legend Robert De Niro. After Taxi Driver, Scorsese decided to make his first big-budget movie, New York, New York, which would be a personal tribute to his hometown and his love for the classic age of the Hollywood studio musical. The theme song is one of my favourite movie soundtracks and the lyrics reflect Scorsese’s aim of making a brand new project where only his own hometown would allow him to achieve success, “My little town blues/ They’re melting away/ I’m gonna make a brand new start of it/ In old New York…”

On V-J Day 1945 a young singer, Francine (Liza Minnelli), meets an egotistical saxophone player, Jimmy (Robert De Niro), in a New York City nightclub and as their careers begin a long uphill climb their romance becomes strained. From the moment they meet there is instant opposition; Jimmy would keep pestering for her phone number while Francine kept resisting. It is only when she accompanies him to an audition that their chemistry takes an unexpected turn. The range of tracking shots, coupled with the over-use of medium long shots, is very artificial and at times claustrophobic. With the lack of close-ups it is at times difficult to get a sense of character emotion, but the rich colours Francine and Jimmy wear juxtaposed with their warring dialogue makes up for the tight space of the setting. Jimmy wears a tropical shirt connoting relaxation and calmness; however his dialogue is very direct and agitated thus tricking our sense of what he is like. The same is applied to Francine for she wears an exuberant black and white stylish dress connoting elegance and straight thinking because it is highlighting no shades of grey; what you see is what you get. In contrast, her dialogue is meddling and at times questions Jimmy’s performance. This, coupled with her devotion to her son later on, changes but she still tries to be successful in the music industry; juggling career with family has shifted to shades of grey. The way their representations change highlights the theme of you only ever really know yourself when you act in a situation you weren’t expecting.

The only bond they truly share is their love of music, but as they become immersed in the music industry they drift apart and Jimmy is not ready to take care of Francine and their new baby boy. As the movie progresses there is a real sense of tragedy because the city they had come to love and rely upon in order to feel alive and achieve success unwittingly becomes the catalyst for their broken marriage. It’s as if the films purpose was to say that in order to be happy in this town you have to be selfish and only think of yourself. This outlook on life, coupled with the use of basic enclosed studio settings suffocates the characters to a point of entrapment and in a way reflects what was happening to Scorsese during filming. His love for New York was that extreme he risked his usual filmic style for a more personal project, but became trapped and bound to a certain way of filming thus ending in disaster.

Unfortunately the movie had a weak reception and plunged Scorsese into depression and cocaine addiction until Robert De Niro encouraged him to kick the habit and focus on making Raging Bull. It was one of the best decisions he ever made, because unlike New York, New York that used expressionism to convey characters’ points of view, Raging Bull maximised his gritty style while employing complex tracking shots and a highly advanced distortion of perspectives in the boxing ring; his film-making had risen to new heights. Scorsese went back to the thematic concerns he was best at conveying: violence, redemption and insecure males, with notable examples being Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.

However, New York, New York is one of my favourite Scorsese films because it was different from his usual gritty realism and was rather a dedication to his hometown, thus making it more personal and nostalgic. I loved his representation of New York and coupled with a tragic romance successfully conveyed the price of fame and the effect it can have on your personal life. I would definitely recommend this Scorsese film and, as the title song says, “Start spreading the news…” for New York, New York is one of those classic gems that has to be unearthed.

Rachel Moore

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