Jimmy Doyle and Francine Evans meet in New York as young, struggling musicians. They fall in love, get married and struggle with fame, career and marriage, all against the backdrop of the 40’s big band era.
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“You do not leave me! I leave you!"
Part musical, part film-noir, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York is an epic love story following the rise and fall of two struggling artists.
It’s V-J Day, 1945. The war has just ended and young Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) is itching to have some fun. Enter Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), classy, polished and utterly uninterested in Jimmy. A long fast-talking, insult-throwing scene sets their love story on course. The film follows their crazy, mismatched pairing as they struggle to make it in the music business in the city that never sleeps.
The look of the film shifts between gritty and stylized. The film showcases the busy, dirty bars in New York against the film noir rain-slicked streets. Some scenes are filmed in bright daylight or stark darkness with other scenes shot with gauzy filters re-creating the look of the 1940’s musical, with soft lighting and extreme close-ups. Utilizing these techniques, Scorsese creates a mood that is equally dark and exuberant; much like the relationship between the two lovers.
With many scenes largely improvised, the plot sometimes falters then gains momentum. The editing however, keeps most of the film consistently moving forward. Both actors bring amazing performances with De Niro more New York street-punk and Minnelli channeling the 40’s musical, film-noir dame. This slight mismatch works for the film as it slides between convention and satire; the characters are sometimes talented artists then raging egomaniacs.
As any epic love story, the couple endures difficulties and in this case it is Jimmy’s insecurity as Francine’s career catapults her into the limelight. The more Jimmy struggles to be a well-recognized saxophone player, the easier it seems for Francine to launch her singing career. The fights that ensue are painful, dark and violent. Apparently, Scorsese encouraged both actors toward more physical acting which escalated and ended up putting them all in the hospital! But the resulting scene is intimate and disturbing, giving brevity to the complexity of their marriage.
The film does not use the musical convention where actors suddenly burst into song. Instead, the singing and sax playing is all organic; as they’re rehearsing, auditioning or performing. De Niro learned to play the sax even though the sound was dubbed and in the film, he hardly sings. Minnelli however sings her heart out! She has the ability to convey a range of emotions through controlled, precise vocal performances. The “Happy Endings” sequence near the end of the film showcases her singing, dancing and comedic talent. It is at this moment that the film takes a break to highlight a musical convention: the performance within the performance. Utilizing large-scale sets, choreographed dancers and many costume changes, it is light, funny and entertaining. And of course, her performance of the title song written by John Kander and Fred Ebb went on to become one of the most famous songs sung in history.
New York, New York, is a love story between two people who are bonded through music. The last scene breaks the convention of the happy ending, allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusions about the fate of the troubled lovers. Sometimes adhering to the conventions of the musical and sometimes satirizing those very conventions, the film is an interesting, visually stunning piece of work.