World War II has just ended, and the recently discharged Robert De Niro hits New York on the prowl for sex. He runs up against WAC Liza Minnelli, and the more she resists his advances, the more determined he becomes. There is more: he is a saxophonist, and she (of course) is a singer). So begins a tempestuous relationship between two artists whose enormous talents and equally enormous personalities mean they can neither live with nor without each other.
The idea of Martin Scorsese taking on the form of the classic musical is so bizarre that it had to happen, and here it is. Scorsese’s conceit is ingenious: all the conventions are there (the meet cute, the songs, the artificial sets and colours), but they collide with the naturalism of the performances and the emotions. A perfect case in point: wandering the streets at night, De Niro sees a sailor and his girl perform a dance together. It is a classic musical moment, but the only sound is that of a train passing. It is a scene of extraordinary beauty, grit, and cinematic truth. And it belongs in an extraordinary film.
The audio is in 5.1. The movie is from 1977. The latter turns out to be the determining characteristic. This isn’t to say that the sound is ugly – setting aside some occasional distortion on the dialogue, the track is very clean. There simply isn’t much by way of surround effects, even during the crowd scenes. The music sounds fine in stereo, though it, too, doesn’t have much of a rear speaker presence.
Scorsese had, at one point, wanted to shoot the film in 1.33:1 in order to completely capture the look of the classic musicals. He didn’t, compromising with 1.66:1, which is what we have here, in non-anamorphic form. The colours are very nice, with strong flesh tones, blacks and contrasts. The print is in perfect condition.
Two discs here. The first, along with a photo gallery and alternate/deleted scenes, has a commentary track by the loquacious Scorsese. He’s as enthusiastic as ever, but there were some moments where his detailed descriptions of the movies that influenced him mean that he doesn’t talk about some interesting things happening right there and then in his own film. Still, there are worse commentators to spend almost three hours with.
Disc 2 has a detailed, two-part documentary, “The New York, New York Stories,” which covers the film from inception to reception. Major participants in the interviews include Scorsese and DP Laszlo Kovacs, who also gets his turn to play commentator on some selected scenes. DeNiro doesn’t show up here, but his co-star does, sharing her memories of the making of the film in “Liza on New York, New York.”
This is one of those films that should have been a grand folly. Instead, it’s just grand.