The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents September 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Anonymous
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Kiss Me Deadly
New York, New York
The Sacrifice
ASC Close-Up
New York, New York (1977)
Blu-ray Edition
1.66:1 (High Definition 1080p)
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
MGM/Fox, $19.98 



Director Martin Scorsese’s obsession with film history is well documented, as is his reputation as a cinematic innovator. Yet the two sides of Scorsese’s sensibility — the reverent film scholar and the convention-shattering maverick — have rarely come together as beautifully as in his 1977 musical New York, New York. Ostensibly a tribute to the classic musicals of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, it is an old-fashioned, unabashedly artificial show-business romance punctuated by elaborately designed set pieces. Yet it is also a searing, heavily improvisational character study that exposes the raw open wounds of a dysfunctional relationship — a reality-based drama that continues the experiments Scorsese began in Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver.

The movie tells the story of Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), two performers who make beautiful music together when they are not at each other’s throats. Jimmy is a devoted musician who prioritizes his art above all else; Francine is equally dedicated in her own way, but as a singer, she favors a looser, more spontaneous style than Jimmy. Music comes more easily to her, and her natural talent becomes a source of both admiration and resentment for Jimmy, whom she eventually marries.

Over the course of more than two-and-a-half hours, Scorsese follows the ups and downs of Jimmy and Francine’s relationship (as well as their respective careers), beginning at the end of World War II and concluding in the mid-1950s. The visual language he employs is that of the movies of the era — The Band Wagon, Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris — are just a few of the reference points Scorsese and director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, incorporate into the style of New York, New York. There are virtually no close-ups as the framing respects the full-bodied expressiveness of the performers and the ornate design of the sets (created by Hollywood legend Boris Leven). The colors, meanwhile, are like nothing seen in the natural world; Scorsese, Kovacs and Leven let their imaginations run wild with a palette reminiscent of three-strip Technicolor that favors saturated reds, purples, greens and yellows.

It is a gloriously and intentionally artificial style, yet there is nothing artificial about the content it expresses. Eschewing the sanitized view of romance often found in the old MGM musicals he is imitating visually, Scorsese presents Jimmy and Francine as an emotionally damaged pair unable (or unwilling) to reconcile their personal and professional lives. Their many arguments are painfully honest, more reminiscent of John Cassavetes than of Gene Kelly, and De Niro and Minnelli’s often-improvised dialogue seems even more spontaneous when juxtaposed with the rigorous photography and production design. When Scorsese stops the movie dead in its tracks for an epic musical number, “Happy Endings,” the vast gulf between the joyous vivacity of the set piece and the reality Francine and Jimmy embody is heartbreaking and profoundly poignant.  

The Blu-ray of New York, New York has a high-def transfer that has improved sharpness and contrast when compared to earlier DVD and Laserdisc releases of the film. Kovacs’s bold palette is presented with vivid clarity, particularly in the gorgeous “Happy Endings” sequence. Throughout the film there is a consistent level of grain that approximates the look of the picture’s theatrical-release prints although the image does occasionally seem a bit soft, and the source material suffers from intermittent scratches and other flaws. This is a contemporary classic worthy of a full-scale restoration along the lines of what Criterion does, but even in this slightly imperfect form, the movie is a visual stunner, and a solid 5.1 surround mix makes it a feast for the ears as well, especially during the many musical numbers.   

The Blu-ray contains a terrific array of supplements, all of which are carried over from previous DVD releases of the film. A five-minute introduction by Scorsese nicely sets up the intentions behind the film, and a commentary track by Scorsese and film-critic Carrie Rickey is packed with keen analysis and enlightening production anecdotes. Kovacs provides a brief but informative 10-minute selected-scene commentary in which he explains his process on a few key scenes, and Liza Minnelli adds the performer’s perspective in a 22-minute interview. Both Kovacs and Minnelli supply further insights in the two-part, 52-minute documentary “The New York, New York Stories,” which also includes interviews with Scorsese, editor Tom Rolf and producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Scorsese’s penchant for experimentation is evident in another supplement, a 20-minute collection of deleted scenes and alternate takes offering an intriguing glimpse at the production’s improvisatory style. A pair of theatrical trailers completes the package.   

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