‘New York, New York’ is probably one of the most often recorded popular songs of all time. Everyone and his aunt Fanny has made a version; from the greats like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet to some fairly nondescript vocalists. In addition, it is familiar to millions of Philistines (head bangers, rappers and the like) as the unofficial anthem of the Big Apple. But no matter how many versions of ‘New York, New York’ you have listened to, you haven’t experienced it until you have watched Lisa Minnelli perform it in the eponymous movie.
And what a movie that was! Robert DeNiro, Lisa Minnelli and Martin Scorsese. That is a combination guaranteed to scorch the silver screen; and boy! Do they deliver? No one can belt out a song – or pop open those enormous eyes – like Minnelli. Her repertoire and octave range almost reaches heights of divinity. From a soft Gershwin ballad to the raunchy “And The World Goes Round”, this picture gives full scope to her amazing And DeNiro is simply DeNiro; in this movie, a gum-chewing younger version with slicked back, Bryllcreamed hair; loud, brash, street smart – in other words, the quintessential New Yorker.
The movie starts on VJ Day in 1945. DeNiro is cruising the dance halls, looking to pick up a spot of evening entertainment. He spots Minnelli sitting alone at a table and heads straight for her. He tries every pick up line in the book, but nothing works. Minnelli is dumbstruck, but resolute in her refusal. A gentleman would have taken the hint and withdrawn, but DeNiro is no gentleman. He simply wears her down. Turns out they do have something in common; their music. Minnelli is an aspiring singer and DeNiro plays a mean saxophone. They hook up to one of the big bands, so popular in those days. When the band leader decides to call it quits, he passes the baton on to DeNiro. Along the way, DeNiro and Minnelli fall in love and get married. The band goes on the road and is fairly successful, but it soon becomes apparent that the major draw is the band’s crooner (Minnelli).
The real trouble starts when Minnelli gets pregnant and quits the band and decides to move back to New York, at least till the baby is born. The replacement crooner is pretty mediocre and the band’s fortunes start to decline. Minnelli’s career is on the upswing and, for a cocky Joe like DeNiro, it’s a bit more than he can handle. The marriage falls apart after the baby is born. Minnelli’s star ascends rapidly; she becomes a vocal diva and is discovered by Hollywood. She really hits the big time. The movie’s climax is the show stopping, ‘New York, New York’ number. DeNiro realizes how much he has always loved Minnelli and makes one final attempt to get her back. Minnelli almost succumbs; but wiser counsel prevails: and the movie ends with DeNiro waiting forlornly on the sidewalk.
Being a Scorsese film, a few memorable scenes are almost mandatory. My personal favorite is the one where DeNiro bangs on Minnelli’s door in the middle of the night. Overcoming her protests, he drapes an overcoat over her nightie and bundles her into a taxi. They end up at a Justice of the Peace and DeNiro dragoons him into marrying them. Minnelli demurs at first, since the gentleman omitted a minor detail; like proposing to her first. Promptly, DeNiro lies down in the snow behind the waiting taxi and orders the driver to back up into and over him. It is only when Minnelli has hysterics that he finally comes out and says he loves her. It is a sublime cinematic moment.
All said and done though, this movie is all about the music. Set in the golden era of the big bands, it has all the classics: “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You’, ‘In The Mood’, ‘Opus One’ and many more. Add that heady mix to Minnelli’s golden voice wrapped around some timeless standards; and you have a musical cornucopia that would be almost impossible to replicate. I believe the soundtrack CD is still available on Amazon and I would urge you to get it. It will be one of the best investments you ever made.