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New York, New York:  Striking A Major Chord - by George Spink
Theme from New York, New York
by Ralph Burns and His Orchestra with Liza Minnelli
"Opus One"
by Ralph Burns and His Orchestra
from New York, New York

This movie review appeared in the Chicago Maroon,
the student newspaper at the University of Chicago, on July 8, 1977.

magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the excitement of V-J Day, Aug. 14, 1945.
LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the excitement of V-J Day, Aug. 14, 1945.

Confetti blankets the cheering crowds along the streets of Manhattan on V-J Day while Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) slowly makes his way. Glenn Miller's "Pennsylvania 6-5000" becomes barely audible above the victory cries, paper horns and noisemakers. Jimmy pauses underneath a large, slanting, reddish-pink neon arrow pointing down at him as the camera zooms and focuses on him.

Inside the Rainbow Room, Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra (played by Bill Tole and his Orchestra) open with their theme, "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You", then break into 'Song Of India." Everyone is having a great time—except for the band, whose members are as expressionless as stone-faced Dorsey is. Jimmy Doyle puts the make on a couple of young women but fails. He spots a cute WAC sitting by herself; the band begins "Opus One." The WAC turns out to be Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), who plays hard to get. Nine minutes later "Opus One" ends and Jimmy gives up on his first try with Francine. It turns out, however, that his buddy has been dancing with Francine’s girl friend. Jimmy loans him his hotel room key and spends what’s left of the evening at the Rainbow Room talking with Francine.

About three or four in the morning, Jimmy, now alone, phones his buddy to see if it’s okay for him to return to his room. His buddy pleads for one more hour. Jimmy agrees. He climbs the stairway to the elevated train station, then watches a sailor and his girl friend dance to imaginary music in the dim glow of a streetlight. Jimmy just stares, longing for what they have. Then the couple disappears....

Newsweek praised Robert De Niro's performance in 'New York, New York' and his other films.

These are the opening scenes of United Artists' New York, New York, Martin Scorcese’s latest film, a musical love story in the old Hollywood tradition but well-tempered by Scorcese’s remarkable vision as a director. Jimmy Doyle is an aspiring tenor saxophonist. Francine Evans is a talented vocalist. They fall in love, of course, although their romance is as shaky as the big band business in its waning days.

Jimmy tells Francine shortly after they meet that he’s looking for "the major chord," a balance of music, money, and love — in that order, but Francine could easily reverse it. Unfortunately, she isn’t able to because Jimmy proves to be a real bastard.

The music orchestrates their relationship throughout the film. Arranged, supervised and conducted by Academy Award winner (Cabaret) Ralph Burns, who began his career by arranging for Woody Herman’s postwar bands, the music of New York, New York is a marvelous blend of big band, bebop, and Broadway. The Cabaret team of John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote several new songs for the film, including its theme. "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me," "Once In a While," "You Are My Lucky Star," "It’s a Wonderful World," "The Man I Love," and "Just You, Just Me" — are mostly big band arrangements featuring Francine on vocals and Jimmy on tenor (dubbed by jazz great Georgie Auld, who coached De Niro on tenor sax and appears in the film as bandleader Frankie Harte). These old standards weave a wonderful romantic ambience.

Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro star in 'New York.'For a brief time Jimmy fronts his own big band and Francine, now his wife, is its featured vocalist. Big bands are on the way out, but Jimmy’s jazz-influenced arrangements and Francine’s singing give his band a chance of making it. One evening Francine becomes dizzy and hurries offstage after her song ends. Jimmy chases after her, and as she tells him she’s pregnant, the band plays "Don’t Be That Way" in the background.

But Francine is that way (Jimmy is not at all pleased) and returns to New York to have her baby. Jimmy soon gives up his band and joins her, working as a sideman at the Harlem Club, where some of the films hottest numbers are played: Diahnne Abbott, De Niro’s real-life wife, sings one of the most evocative versions of "Honeysuckle Rose" you'll ever hear. Francine eventually goes her own way and becomes a superstar. Her first hits include "But the World Goes Round" and "There Goes the Ball Game," both allusions to her breakup with Jimmy.

Jimmy Doyle with his own own postwar jazz group.De Niro’s portrayal of Jimmy Doyle is executed as brilliantly as his roles in Bang the Drum Slowly, Mean Streets, Godfather II, Taxi Driver, and The Last Tycoon. Some musicians I have known have been as egocentric as Jimmy Doyle, complete bastards to the women in their lives — though musicians have no monopoly on these traits. De Niro’s performance as a tenor saxophonist also is superb, and it is unlikely we will ever again see an actor portray a musician with the authenticity De Niro achieves in this film.

As Francine Evans — young, vulnerable, easily impressed by Jimmy Doyle’s wit and charm, just as easily victimized by his arrogance and conceit — Liza Minnelli comes across beautifully. Her facial expressions carry as much feeling as her singing, and both can fill you with joy as much as they can with sadness. Liza Minnelli's musical credentials were in fine form long before New York, New York, but she had to work hard to master the big band idiom. She succeeded. Her renditions of "The Man I Love," "Once in a While," and especially "Just You, Just Me" are in the best tradition of Martha Tilton, Helen Forrest, Helen Ward, Bee Wain and Jo Stafford. And the new numbers she sings, including the theme, "New York, New York," will please her legions of admirers.

There are several fine minor roles in the film, especially Georgie Auld's interpretation of bandleader Frankie Harte. As fewer and fewer people turn out to hear his band, he tells Francine that he’s going to cancel the tour. She reminds him that it’s the fifth time he has said this. Then he tells her there’s only one person who can lead his band. "You mean Jimmy?" Francine asks. "No, me!" he insists, as bandleaders have always done.

Mary Kay Place appears briefly as Bernice, who replaces Francine as Jimmy Doyle’s vocalist. She typifies so many of the young girl singers big bands often picked up along the road, telling Jimmy that she’s "not a bimbo." Lenny Gaines as the record producer conveys all the smart-ass self-confidence of that profession; but in the scene where he meets with Jimmy Doyle to discuss Francine’s recording contract, Jimmy even tops him, although it’s a pretty fair duel.

New York, New York ends in the early 1950s back in the Rainbow Room. Jimmy Doyle, now owner of a new jazz club called The Major Chord and with his recording of "New York, New York" at the top of the charts, joins the Big Apple’s cabaret set to hear Francine Evans at her opening night performance. After she sees Jimmy in the audience, she orders her orchestra to play "New York, New York," a piece written by Jimmy for her years before and to which she has added the lyrics. The number brings a standing ovation from the Rainbow Room audience and received a big round of applause from the audience at the McClurg Court Theater (in Chicago) the night I saw the film.

Scorcese set out to create a Hollywood musical that would rival those of yesteryear. He has done so. New York, New York is refreshing, entertaining, visually and musically exciting, nostalgic yet contemporary. Some scenes strongly resemble Edward Hopper's paintings. They are masterpieces of symbolism and allusion: the young couple, so much in love, dancing beneath the elevated; Jimmy Doyle in a lonely, pensive mood playing his sax as he sits in a lawn chair in front of a large billboard featuring a sun-tanned girl in a bathing suit in an advertisement for a seaside resort while, to his right, a young couple in silhouette sits at a table playing cards; a green 1941 Buick parked outside a funky Harlem night club; the EXIT sign that cautions Francine in the final moments of the film; and, at the end, that large, reddish-pink neon arrow again pointing at Jimmy Doyle.

F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded his best novel by reminding us that "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning–

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Jimmy Doyle's "green light" is his "major chord," which he grasps for only a second. Scorcese has created an ingenious musicscape tracing Jimmy Doyle's search. In their final scene together, Francine Evans tells Jimmy Doyle that "happy endings are a dime a dozen, aren't they?" He ends up right where he started, standing beneath the neon arrow.

Now, who was it who said, "There are no second acts in American lives?"

George Spink
Los Angeles
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"New York, New York" - Liza Minnelli (1977)
Source: You Tube
"Opus One" - Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra
Source: You Tube
© George Spink, Los Angeles, California, United States of America (2011-2012)