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Scorsese's misfit musical

'New York, New York,' an uneven blend of songs and psychodrama, is still tough to love.

December 02, 2007|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

The Hollywood musical might be long past its heyday, but its descendants still pop up in unexpected places. The genre has been tailored repeatedly and tweaked to match a specific era or sensibility: the MTV romanticism of "Moulin Rouge," the post-camp rock-cabaret of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," the singer-songwriter earnestness of this year's "Once." In other words, there have been plenty of notable updates but relatively few attempts to reinvent the form, to tinker seriously with its DNA.

Holding pride of place in the small pantheon of revisionist musicals -- alongside such misfit landmarks as Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz," Dennis Potter's "Pennies From Heaven" and Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" -- is Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York" (1977), among the grandest and most experimental of Hollywood musicals.

Scorsese's swing-era epic, reissued in a 30th anniversary DVD this week, still carries with it the whiff of an academic exercise. It often seems less a musical than a movie about musicals. The intention was to combine the proud artifice of an old-fashioned song-and-dance spectacle with the emotional rawness and volatility of a John Cassavetes film. As befits a movie premised on a willful mismatch of styles, "New York, New York" features the indelibly odd romantic pairing of Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli, actors with clashing, larger-than-life personas who even then were flirting with self-parody.

De Niro is especially disorienting in the opening scenes. In the thick of a V-J Day celebration (on elaborate sets teeming with extras), De Niro's Jimmy, a wiseguy sax player in a distracting Hawaiian shirt, homes in on Minnelli's Francine, a USO singer. In a regular musical or romance, this would be the meet-cute scene, but Jimmy's pickup attempts progress quickly from oddball persistence to creepy hectoring. Coming so soon after the previous year's Scorsese-De Niro triumph "Taxi Driver," the impression is of Travis Bickle gate-crashing the old MGM lot.

Minnelli, it goes without saying, is a more natural fit for the musical genre, having won an Oscar for her performance in Fosse's "Cabaret." Her presence here has as much to do with her pedigree as her abilities -- she functions as a kind of living, breathing homage. Some of the classic musicals Scorsese has in mind were directed by her father, Vincente Minnelli, and starred her mother, Judy Garland. The plot adheres to the basic rags-to-riches arc of the timeless showbiz allegory and Garland chestnut "A Star Is Born" (which had just been revived in 1976, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson).

Scorsese's first big-budget production, "New York, New York" was a critical and commercial failure upon release. It now has its share of passionate defenders, though it has not been as successfully rehabilitated as the other flops that followed, "Raging Bull" and "The King of Comedy." The movie also seems fated to exist in the shadow of its John Kander-Fred Ebb title theme, a beloved anthem of New York sports teams, associated more with Frank Sinatra (who recorded it in the late '70s) than with Minnelli, despite her memorably brassy rendition in the film's finale.

Unusually for a musical, "New York, New York" is hard to love. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the film starts to gain emotional traction only in the final hour, with Francine now a movie star and her relationship with Jimmy beyond repair. Scorsese stages a few terrific musical numbers for Minnelli (safely framed as a film-within-the-film), capped by the ironic "Happy Endings" sequence, which was missing from the theatrical cut but restored for the film's initial home video release and included here. It's followed by the movie's own less-than-happy ending.

Throughout, Scorsese builds considerable tension between the surface glitz of a musical and the improv-inflected turmoil of a psychological melodrama. By the end of the film, he hasn't exactly reconciled these wildly opposed versions of reality (or rather, forms of artifice), but he has arrived at a kind of emotional truth. You might even call it common ground.

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