Tom Hooper’s Adaptation of Cats Gets It All Wrong…Oh So Wrong

Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy from Cats (Universal Pictures)

Tom Hooper’s 2019 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats is bad. Mind-boggingly bad. The kind of bad that is hard to watch. Cats is not destined to be a cult classic. It doesn’t horseshoe from being so bad it becomes good. It doesn’t become camp (though it does try). It won’t be resurrected as a cult classic. It won’t be revisited as an underrated gem. It’s a bad film made with such good intentions that it feels churlish to criticize. So many critics slammed the film, citing its terrible special effects or bad performances as the main reason why the film doesn’t work. And those critics are correct – the rendering of the anthropomorphic cats is gross and disturbing – but the problem isn’t just Hooper’s interpretation of Cats, the problem is the source material. Though Lloyd Webber’s stage musical is a blockbuster, it’s a pretty shoddy show. The plot – if one could call it that – is nonsensical and tedious to follow and the music is repetitive and dull.

As the film opens, we become well acquainted with the film’s major problems immediately. The admittedly catchy score is dated – its sickly synths – introduces the lean score. The visuals feel off. It looks queasily real and animated, a confusing landscape that resembles a video game. As we see a faceless somebody fling a pillowcase into a jumbled alley, we see the true obstacle of the film: it’s the cats. I don’t know what Hooper thought when he allowed for the cats.

In the Broadway musical, the cast members were dressed in Lycra and tights, with tufts of fur and stylized makeup. They didn’t look like real cats, but that wasn’t the point. They looked like an 80s MTV-pop version of what dancing cats should look like: harlequinesque makeup, bushy wigs, fuzzy legwarmers. Costume designer John Napier allowed the costumes to be stylish and abstract with splashes of color and shapes that informed the characters. In Hooper’s version, the actors are CGI’d into anthropomorphic cats and it gets strange and confusing. The human faces look shoddily copy/pasted and because the actors engage in intricate dance sequences, they’re obviously bipedal, but then when they do walk on all fours, they’re on their hands and knees? They have human hands and feet. I mean, it all looks odd and ugly as if Cats is taking place on the Island of Dr Moreau. Also, the film tries to get clever by sizing the cats to scale, but then the CGI seems to get that wrong too because sometimes the cats seem too small. None of it is right.

Some of this could be saved if the performances are good, but unfortunately, the cast – made up of some pros like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Idris Elba, and Jason Derulo, flounder mightily. Dench is laden down with furs and she seems to be heaving herself around; McKellen is odd and strange (and barely looks like a cat); Wilson and Corden are on hand for some (alleged) comic relief but neither comedian does well. The only decent note is Hudson, who as Grizabella, gets to sing the show’s big hit theme, “Memory” and does so beautifully. She tears into the maudlin pop ballad with a fiery passion that is at odds with how ridiculous she looks. The rest of the cast is made up of stage dancers and singers and the dance sequences are admittedly well done: Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is good and the dancers, ingenue lead Francesca Hayward in particular, do solid work, despite looking so awful.

Upon its release, Cats bombed mightily. Critics savaged the film and audiences found it bewildering. I watched the film with some perverse curiosity. Could a movie be that bad? Yes it can. It’s a mystery as to how this movie got made and more crucially, how it got released in its current state. If the CGI was junked and the production went back to essentially filming a stage performance, it wouldn’t have been such a gigantic disaster; granted, the actors would still have to sing the terrible music but it would have lent the surreal, absurdist imagery some plausible suspension of belief.

Instead, we’re left with this shambolic mess that takes itself way to seriously to dip into ridiculous camp a la Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room. Instead, it collapses underneath the weight of its far-reaching pretensions and shoddy, rushed work.

Liza joins some pros in a game attempt at a comeback with Stepping Out

Liza Minnelli, Steppin’ Out (dir. Lewis Gilbert, Paramount, 1991)

I always said that Liza Minnelli was born in the wrong generation. Had she been a star when her mother, Judy Garland was making movies, from the 1930s to the 1950s, she would have been a much bigger movie star. But she became a movie star in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the New Wave of Hollywood changed the tone and direction of mainstream cinema. Minnelli was an odd fit. She was too sincere. Too enthusiastic. Too much. Stars like Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Estelle Parsons, and Al Pacino brought a gritty reality to cinema and Minnelli’s smiling-through-tears, go-for-broke persona was out of step. Though she made a huge splash early in her career, winning an Oscar for her excellent work in Bob Fosse’s 1972 musical drama Cabaret, the rest of her career was a series of disappointments (tellingly, Minnelli’s star shone brightest on Broadway)

Throughout the 1980s, Minnelli’s film career relied more on her celebrity than her talent. Though 1981’s Arthur (directed by Steve Gordon) was a big hit, star Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud benefited most from its success. From there, she made a few cameos before returning to a starring role in the ill-fated 1988 comedy thriller Rent-a-Cop, in which she plays a prostitute opposite Burt Reynolds (that year, she also reunited with Moore for a flopped sequel to Arthur) So during that decade, she starred in only three feature films, whilst focusing on her stage work as a Broadway actress and concert performer.

In 1992, Minnelli starred in what was hoped to be a comeback hit for the performer, 1991’s musical comedy, Stepping Out. Based on the hit West End play written by Richard Harris and directed by Lewis Gilbert (Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita), Stepping Out gave Minnelli the kind of role that could have been mistaken for one like Sally Bowles in Cabaret or Francine Evans in Martin Scorsese’s musical drama New York, New York (1977). Stepping Out was a film that seemingly worked to Minnelli’s strengths: it was a light comedy, with some tender moments, a rousing, climactic end, and musical numbers written by her longtime collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb. Gilbert had a solid track record of making films that were pulled from the stage: the three films he did before Stepping Out (1989’s Shirley Valentine, 1985’s Not Quite Paradise, and 1983’s Educating Rita) were all films that had stage origins. He also proved with Valentine and Rita, that he was an empathetic director when it came to working with plucky, likable leads.

And Minnelli’s role seemed tailor-made for her. Gutsy, sassy, and optimistic with loads of talent, it was the kind of role that was created to allow for Minnelli to show off her gifts and give the audience that ole razzle dazzle. The original play was transformed into a musical and Minnelli’s character – the has-been Broadway hoofer-turned-dancing-teacher, Mavis Turner – was made the focus of the film, with the eccentric supporting players behind.

Along with a good director and an energetic lead, the film also boasted a supporting cast of some great character actors. Film legend and two-time Oscar-winner Shelley Winters appears in what feels like a Shirley MacLaine battleaxe role as Mavis’ friend and pianist, Mrs Fraser; Minnelli’s fellow Broadway baby, Ellen Greene is one of Mavis’ students, as is legendary clown Bill Irwin. Gilbert reunites with his Educating Rita muse, Julie Walters, who plays the wealthy, dithering and self-involved Vera. Canadian film veterans Sheila McCarthy and comedy genius Andrea Martin also are part of the cast. And Carol Woods is the sole actress from the original Broadway production to appear in the film. And future TV funny woman and song-and-dance gal, Jane Krakowski is also featured.

The plot is wafer thin. Mavis is a dancing teacher who is in charge of trying to get a messy group of amateurs to look like something. Each character has a backstory and the dancing class works as an escape. Most of the stakes are pretty mundane, though Andi (Sheila McCarthy) is the victim of domestic violence – a rather jarring plot on an otherwise genteel and fluffy film. Mavis is a frustrated and slightly embittered performer, someone who tried to make it on Broadway but instead ended up teaching in a church basement in Buffalo. To make it more Liza! the script gives Minnelli an opportunity to sing. In a nightclub setting, she croons a jazzy version of the standard “Mean to Me” in a smokey, dingy bar. She also gets a snazzy solo dance number in the film, too. And the finale includes a group performance, with Mavis and her troupe of amateur dancers letting it loose at a talent show, performing to Kander & Ebb’s newly-written title tune.

“Stepping Out” is the centerpiece of the film. The moment when Liza conjures up all of her Liza magic. It’s an odd moment in the film because it’s so old-fashioned in its straight forward depiction. Since the 1970s, musicals often acted in response to the Golden Age of Hollywood. But Stepping Out is simply staged as a musical number without any critique or commentary on the musical film, despite Minnelli’s storied history with the genre. For a rinky dink talent show in Buffalo, New York, Mavis gets a pretty elaborate musical number. It starts off in a bright pink room setting – like something out of a live version of The Simpsons. She’s dressed in pajamas, with pink fuzzy slippers, and a pink terry cloth robe. The song – not Kander & Ebb’s better ones – starts and stops and Minnelli croons, getting flattering closeups. It’s an odd number – one that is meant to reaffirm Mavis’ Minnelli-like talents. As she sings, she struts behind a Chinese screen, doffs off her sleepwear, and then appears, triumphantly, in a glittery top hat and tails ensemble, reminiscent of her look in Cabaret as well as somewhat similar to her mother’s look in “Get Happy” in Summer Stock. She’s joined by her dance troupe, all matching her snazzy outfit. In something out of A Chorus Line, Gilbert frames his dancers simply, capturing their dancing as they work in sync, creating a tableaux in which the characters become indistinct from each other.

Minnelli, Stepping Out (Paramount, 1991)
Minnelli, Cabaret (Allied Artists, 1972)
Garland, Summer Stock (dir. Charles Walters, MGM, 1950)

When the line breaks up and we get individual performances, we see the theatre backgrounds emerging. Krakowski is easily the best dancer of the bunch and when Irwin joins Minnelli, both performers cease being their characters and are simply two pros doing their thing. Irwin is allowed to do his rubber-limbed clowning bit and Minnelli does her Liza bit. It’s an indulgent sequence in the film – slightly too long – that both highlights the film’s weaknesses as well as its potential. It’s a bit of a messy film in that the Liza Minnelli starry stuff that is shoehorned in the film feels at once intrusive and unsatisfying. She’s energetic in the film, especially in her dancing numbers, but the dramatic bit with the students stalls. Instead, Gilbert should have simply pulled a Fosse and created a musical TV special around his star a la Liza with a Z. As seen in the “Stepping Out” number, Minnelli hadn’t lost any of her star power nor any of her talent or charisma; but she feels ill-served by the dramatic bits of the film.

Part of the problem is that in Stepping Out we’re supposed to buy Liza Minnelli as a down-on-her-luck has-been dancer who cannot catch a break. Minnelli doesn’t have the range to play working class and she cannot seem to shrug off her diva persona. Toiling away in some anonymous church basement, trying to get some bland misfits to learn how to tap seems crazily beneath her. At least with characters like Sally Bowles or Francine Evans, Minnelli was able to bend her extravagant, eccentricity to the script. In Harris’ script, Minnelli is a bit of a drag, her life a humdrum. It’s not that characters in film have to be fabulous, but if it’s Liza Minnelli, yes, her character should be fabulous. That’s the whole point of Liza.

As a comeback vehicle, Stepping Out couldn’t bring Liza Minnelli back to her 70s glory days, but at that point in her career, that wasn’t important anymore. By the 1990s, her concert career essentially became her full time job. As of 2021, she hasn’t been in a starring role in a feature film, instead lending her celebrity to some television projects as well as goofy cameos in 2006’s The Oh in Ohio and most notably as the officiant of a gay wedding in Sex and the City 2, in which she gaily (and gayly) warbled Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”. It wouldn’t revive Minnelli’s film career nor would it revive the movie musical, but that’s fine because Minnelli’s stardom and celebrity was never attached to just one thing that she did: instead, she’s a star who doesn’t need to be in a hit movie. So, in the end, Stepping Out feels superfluous.

12 Days of Christmas: Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas

On the ’12 Days of Christmas’ I’m sharing my favorite Christmas movies, albums, Christmas episodes, specials, one for each day until we get to Christmas Day.

A Charlie Brown Christmas [2012 Remastered & Expanded Edition] (Remastered & Expanded Edition)

There are certain parts of pop culture that are so lionized and ubiquitous that it’s difficult to assess its quality. Are these beloved bits of pop culture really great or is it just our memory, tinged with nostalgia? Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is arguably one of the most important popular Christmas recordings of the 20th century. Tracks from the album – most notably Guaraldi’s pensive, shuffling take on the standard, “O Tannenbaum” and the original composition, “Christmas Time Is Here” – are licensed for countless television programs and played on the radio during the holidays.

Guaraldi’s soundtrack to the classic 1965 animated special captures Charles Schulz’s melancholic, somewhat sad take on Christmas. The special is a lovely piece of yuletide storytelling: the titular Charlie Brown is fretting because he’s feeling anxious about the holidays, in particular, whether he’s loved by his friends and whether the holidays have become too commercial. The skimpy, scrawny tree Charlie identifies with is a perfect encapsulation the charm behind A Charlie Brown Christmas. Schulz’s holiday stories are about the underdog hoping to persevere.

The score is perfect. Guaraldi’s soft, quiet work is a wonderful accompaniment to Schulz’s gentle story. It’s an odd album in that it’s a jazz record and a holiday record all at once – and save for some obviously Christmas tunes – it’s a record that isn’t tied to the holidays, and could have been a year-long album, not tied to December, had it not become such a Christmas icon.

Guaraldi takes on piano-playing duties himself and matches the slow, relaxed pace of the Christmas special. The poignancy of A Charlie Brown Christmas is summed up on the moody, thoughtful “O Tannenbaum.” It’s not the raucous, ebullient holiday music we’re normally accustomed to; instead, Guaraldi wants to capture the quiet moments during the holidays: the moments when we stop and sigh, looking at our loved ones in affection, taking in the twinkling loveliness of the Christmas tree. The instrumental take on “Christmas Time Is Here” is equally pensive and lovely. The jazzy “Skating” is set to a gently joyful piano that rolls slowly like a small trickle of water.

Though A Charlie Brown Christmas is a seemingly meek affair, Guaraldi throws in a few moments of spirit. “Christmas Is Coming” shuffles with some nimble piano playing. And of course, the sassy “Linus and Lucy” has transcended mere holiday music and has become legendary on its own merits (we can just picture the Peanuts gang grooving to the tune) And largely an instrumental album, there are a couple of tracks that are spiked with the joyfully tuneless warbling of a children’s choir, their off-key trilling sounding utterly charming and sweet in the genuine joy and fun; these kids’ amateurish approach to chanting the Christmas chestnut “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is great to listen to because it feels like one has stumbled into a Christmas pageant.

After its release in 1965, the album’s legend grew exponentially as new generations embraced this record. Though many of the album’s tracks were licensed repeatedly their impact was not diminished by the sustained playing of the songs on the radio, on television, and during the holidays at shopping malls and department stores more than 50 years ago. Its sheer beauty lies in its wistful, lilting simplicity.

Stocking stuffer from last year: a roundup of 1960s Christmas pop albums by a selection of pop singers such as Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne, and Peggy Lee, among others.

Summer of Soul is a fabulous, powerful testament to music, fellowship, and Civil Rights

Searchlight Pictures

Something very important was happening. It wasn’t just about the music.

Gladys Knight

In the summer of 1969, hundreds of thousands of people convened on Mount Morris Park in Harlem to witness pop music history. For six weeks, some of Black music’s most powerful and amazing artists entertained large crowds with soul, jazz, pop, and gospel music. The 1960s were drawing to a violent and dispiriting close, with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy. Rebellions ripped through the innercity and Black communities were targeted by the police. In this tumultuous context, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was a seeming salve to bring peace, love, and art to a community that was struggling for equality.

Despite the high attendance and the superstar caliber of the entertainers, the festival has slipped into unjust obscurity until the careful curation of Questlove, the drummer and frontman of the hip-hop band, the Roots. A reported four hours has been whittled down to a tidy two hours, most of the performances truncated to accommodate interviews with attendees as well as participants. Though it would’ve been great to see the performances in full – and I’d love to see the full four hours – Summer of Soul is a fantastic tribute to a beautiful moment in pop and contemporary history when artists of different genres were able to get together to give happiness and escape to their audiences.

The talent that graced the stage for the festival is dizzying. By the late 1960s, soul music was going through an evolution that saw the gospel-influenced popular music taking on psychedelic sounds that reflected the times. This evolution was illustrated with a performance by the successful pop-soul group the 5th Dimension which was singing their big hit “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the Broadway musical Hair. Members Billy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn McCoo are on hand to talk about their participation in the festival and how important it was for the group, which was dragged by criticisms that they were “too white.” In one of the film’s many moving moments, McCoo is moved to tears as she watches a younger version of herself with her bandmates performing at this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Along with the Fifth Dimension, other legendary acts like Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder narrate their performances. Staples, in particular, has a great account in which she talks about performing with gospel great Mahalia Jackson, when the two were introduced by a young Jesse Jackson to sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Staples and Jackson duet on the spiritual with a transcendent power that is simply breathtaking. The Edwin Hawkins Singers also provide a spiritual highlight in the film with their classic “Oh Happy Day.”

Though the church songs were among the most moving, the film chronicles pop superstars Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, Sly and the Family Stone, and Gladys Knight acknowledging that their involvement with the festival was an important turning point in their careers in which they assessed the direction of their sound. Wonder – who was a mere 19 years-old when performing at the festival – reminisces about his participation in the show and how it informed the kind of artist he wanted to be as an adult. Ruffin, of the Temptations, who is shown performing a mind-blowing version of “My Girls” (though his vocals are sandpapery and rough, he hits some gravity-defying whistle notes), represents a bridge between the respectability politics of the Motown assembly line and its tux and evening gown aesthetic to the more modern sounds of the festival. An important highlight of the film is the appearance of Nina Simone who commands the stage with a regal presence. After a performance of her song “Young, Gifted, and Black,” Simone recites a poem to the appreciative crowds, reading the fiery and powerful lyrics of David Nelson of the Last Poets.

One of the things that Summer of Soul indicates is the intersection of politics and the music festival. Organizer Tony Lawrence is portrayed as a canny and impressive impresario who is able to parlay his talents to network with and ingratiate himself to political, cultural, and business leaders of the time. New York mayor John Lindsey is portrayed as a sympathetic ally to Lawrence’s agenda, appearing at the festival, being coined a “blue-eyed soul brother” and several interview subjects testify to Lindsey’s allegiance to the Civil Rights Movement.

The participation of activists Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Denise Oliver-Velez is an excellent way to firm the connection between the use of art in promoting social justice and racial equality. Hunter-Gault, a journalist for The New York Times, spoke in the film to the importance and power of embracing the word “Black” and its coinage being so significant at the time; scenes in the film moved away from the concert stage to beauty shops, barber shops, boutiques, as the media began to cover different forms of Black beauty, including hair and fashion, which took its roots from Afro-centrism. These are very important scenes that highlight the importance of the festival and how it was was one part of a larger tapestry of a response to the racism and oppression that met Black and brown people.

When I saw the film, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos innovated space tourism. During the festival, man walked on space. In a smart juxtaposition of reactions, the film showed the news media gauging the interest in the lunar landing: white respondents were enthusiastic, marveling at the technological innovation; Black respondents were less impressed, highlighting that the high cost of these endeavors could be directed toward urban renewal and to combat homelessness and poverty. This instance is only one of many when dark parallels are found: police brutality, communities reacting to violence with rebellion, politicians neglecting the concerns of communities of color. What Summer of Soul does best is not only capture a beautiful moment but the conditions that made such a beautiful moment necessary. Attendee Musa Jackson summed it up best when he remembered, “It was incredible. Families. Fathers. Mothers. Kids running around – I was one of those kids. Beautiful, beautiful women. Beautiful men. It was like seeing royalty.”

A Qualified Success: Martin Scorsese’s Concerted Efforts to Revive the Movie Musical with New York, New York

In a way, it was a matter of trying to come to terms with a reality that I sensed from these movies that I’d seen from 1945 on to 1957. But I did away with the convention of the time.

Martin Scorsese

When assessing Martin Scorsese’s career, most will cite Raging Bull, Mean Streets, or Goodfellas as his greatest achievements. Reading through a series of top ten lists, and the predictable entries appear: The Wolf of Wall Street, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Departed, Mean Streets. The most controversial entries could be Casino or The Age of Innocence. Few people will mention New York, New York, his foray into the movie musical, which saw the director try to introduce the traditional Hollywood musical to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. Like much of his work, the film carries themes of anger and ambition – though instead of framing it in the crime world, he couches his concerns in post-war show business. Urban decay is an important thread throughout his films – the decay that brings about organised crime, but in this case, Scorsese wards off urban blight in his hermetically-sealed fictional world that at-times resembles a lush box of Valentines Day candy. It was his first big-budget spectacular that found the director helming a project that cost over $14 million, a seemingly instant ascent from his more modest productions. Despite the resources and talent involved, New York, New York is sad case of a brilliant director with a brilliant idea that almost pulls it off.

l to r: Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro, New York, New York (dir. Martin Scorsese), United Artists, 1977.

New York, New York is Scorsese’s attempt to bring Vincent Minnelli or Stanley Donen into the 1970s, whilst still maintain the verisimilitude of his filmmaking style. It’s an uneasy marriage because Minnelli, Donen, Busby Berkeley, Charles Walters filmed in a highly stylized, artificial manner. Their movies suspended reality. Characters would break into song in the middle of conversations, with extras joining in intricate choreography, while invisible orchestras back them up. The costumes were often grand, and the acting was pitched higher, as if they were performing on a Broadway stage. Aesthetically these movies looked different, too, because they were often filmed on sets simulating cities like Paris, New York, or Los Angeles. And these sets presented these urban landscapes as being tidy, clean without litter, homeless people, fights. MGM’s exaggerated aesthetic also followed into how the characters dressed and looked – the makeup was heavy, lips were ruby red, cheeks candy apple-hued, hairdos were elaborate and constructed.

Scorsese was part of a film movement that purposely moved away from this artifice. His critical success in the 1970s saw a reaction to the old Hollywood system and it was moving away from the antiquated studio system. The studio system had been crumbling for quite some time, done in by the rise of television as well as changing tastes in audiences, influenced undoubtedly by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, as well as the Vietnam War. Scorsese, along with his peers including Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino, and Michael DePalma confronted the raw, ugly, violent realities that plagued urban settings, and explored the societal and emotional causes of the violence. Because the New Hollywood was free from the Hays Code era, these films were free to depict violence as well as once-taboo subjects like prostitution, rape, abortion, murder. The violence was confrontational, and audiences weren’t allowed to escape it.

So, in some respects, New York, New York is a brave film in Scorsese’s canon because it’s a film that looks to unite the disparate movements in film. Scorsese makes a loving Valentine to the MGM musical, leaving visual cues and homages throughout the film, as well as, reaching for the kind of grand spectacle that he hadn’t tried before (he never dealt with a film that boasted hundreds of extras and a lavish score and an army of backup dancers) It’s his A Star Is Born or Singin’ in the Rain and he shows his love, not just for old Hollywood, but for music and performance. What the movie proves is that Scorsese is very good at staging a musical number. And Because Scorsese was prone to take risks, he not only set out to make a postmodern Hollywood musical, but an epic one at that, which clocked in at nearly 3 hours, and boasted a 10-minute musical number in the middle. He trusted that his audiences would be drawn into the spectacle.

If New Hollywood rejected the artificial trappings of Old Hollywood, Scorsese showed he had a nostalgia and a love for it. Because the film was such an undertaking and a novel one, Scorsese had no precedent to look to. It’s borrows heavily from Minnelli and Donen, particularly in some of the obviously artificial street settings which are painted backdrops, but he didn’t want to abandon the emotional truth that New Hollywood achieved. Scorsese had a hard time encapsulating the film, demurring, “I don’t know how to define it. I mean, I had an idea, on the one hand to embrace the artifice in a good sense, the artifice and the beauty of the old Hollywood, with room enough for a new way of looking at life.”

As mentioned earlier, New York, New York is a product of Scorsese’s cinematic upbringing and a clear influence on this film is George Cukor’s 1954 showbiz musical drama A Star Is Born. Scorsese’s plot resembles Cukor’s in that both films deal with a marriage that disintegrates due to fame and fortune. The film looks at the fractured relationship of two talented performers, who struggle to stay together because of warring ambition, ego, and a terrible clash of personalities. As their fame grows, so does their inability to be married. And despite Scorsese’s efforts to embrace the Old Hollywood aesthetic, he also presents an unflinching view of domestic rancour and domestic violence that are a seeming bad fit for the idealized world of a Hollywood musical. It’s this unexpected juxtaposition that gives the film its intended emotional power – musical numbers are inherently joyful and there are sharp tonal shifts when the film moves away from a musical number to a scene of domestic strife.  

The plot of the film is straight forward: On V-J Day in 1945, brilliant, but mercurial saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) spots comely USO singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) from across a crowded nightclub and he instantly falls in love. The world is rejoicing the surrender of the Japanese, and the film’s open shows lots of possibility and optimism. It’s here that it’s most like an old Hollywood musical. Scorsese has wide shots of rapturous celebration on sets that are obviously fake (Scorsese would become famous for filming on the streets of New York City), and cinematographer László Kovács works with the director to create a lush, sumptuous look to the film that resembles flattering glamour shots.

Francine and Jimmy get together and despite her initial frostiness, she falls for him. She unwillingly tags along to an audition that goes badly because of Jimmy’s temper, and she saves it by urging him to play to her crooning. The two discover that they share an easy chemistry that eventually translates to a successful touring act. As their careers progress their love becomes doomed by their talent, ego, and competitiveness, and eventually their marriage falls apart. After Francine gives birth to their son, Jimmy abandons them, and goes on to a distinguished career as a jazz musician, whilst she becomes a successful musical comedy star and entertainer. Scorsese employs neon-soaked montages to show us the growing success of Jimmy and Francine’s act but slows down the action to individual moments of tension and rancour to highlight the ruptures in their union – including an anxious scene in which the two are rehearsing in front of a band and their strained relationship spills over to how they interact with their band musicians. 

As the film reaches for stylistic goals – namely, successfully blending two disparate movements in cinema as well as a panoramic and epic scope for a director who never worked at this scale before, Scorsese tried to inject some of his signature features into the film, namely the raw, seemingly improvised nature of the actors’ performance. One thing that must be said about the Hollywood musical is that it appears staged and meticulously plotted. With New York, New York, Scorsese avoided this tactic namely by confining the musical numbers to diegetic performances in the film as opposed to gigantic musical numbers in which characters randomly burst into song.

This reach for a more urgent, spontaneous tone in the context of a gigantic production like New York, New York was difficult to pull off. The intimate scenes between his lead actors managed to retain some closeness but Scorsese struggled with successfully mingling the two styles. “Basically,” he said, “I tried to deal with the style I was experimenting with…I wanted to push the improvisation more.” This proved difficult though because during the colossal production, “sets are being build or dismantled and you got 500 extras,” making it hard for Scorsese to his improvised method.

But he does manage to pull it off in isolated parts of the film, namely due to the chemistry he shares with his frequent collaborator Robert DeNiro, who matches Scorsese’s New Hollywood aesthetic. Unlike matinee idols of Old Hollywood, DeNiro was an actor who looked and sounded like a real person, removed from the idealized notion of masculine beauty. He rarely played heroes and his acting was informed by the Method style which resulted in idiosyncratic work that often felt dangerous, nervy, and prone to sudden explosions. Scorsese was able to work with DeNiro to give New York, New York a volatility that is usually lacking in a Hollywood musical. Ronald Reagan, a former actor himself, though a consummate product of the Hollywood system, once decried Method acting as “dirty” and in a certain sense, he’s right. Because Hollywood musicals require a certain stylized reality, gritty, emotionally complex performances like DeNiro’s are rare and subvert the standards of a Hollywood musical. When DeNiro is on screen, especially in his discordant scenes with Minnelli, Scorsese coaxes a performance that is akin to a tight spring that threatens to jump at any moment. He’s at once menacing, yet beguiling, and manages to cut through the thick, lacquered gloss and remain real even if he’s pacing on a train platform with a painted train in the background.  Scorsese’s goal was to explore the tension that arises with the “kind of naturalistic behaviour of the actors within the confines of an artificial-looking film.”

And the film does look very artificial at times. When the film opens to the celebration and the crowd of revellers, a spotlight lingers on a pair of saddle shoes that trod on a filthy newspaper, heralding the surrender of the Japanese. The camera pans back to take in the large crowd that is surging through the New York street, it looks fake – the sidewalks too uniform and new (no cracks or pockmarks), the buildings on the side of the street to fabricated and flat. The proportions look off, which Scorsese did deliberately, finding slight details like street curbs being too high or the Manhattan skyline being painted part of the challenge when trying to impart sincerity in an artificial setting. There’s a scrubbed, polish look to New York, New York that is a marked difference from Scorsese’s other films from the 1970s.

And if DeNiro is Scorsese’s way of disrupting the artifice with gritty realism, the casting of Liza Minnelli is an homage to that artifice as well as to the lore of the Hollywood musical. Not only is Minnelli a musical star like her character, but she’s a direct link to the Golden Age of Hollywood – her parents Vincent Minnelli and Judy Garland are two of the era’s most important figures. Unlike DeNiro, Minnelli doesn’t convey a deep and profound authenticity. She’s patently showbiz in the way that she delivers her lines – her nervous smiles and comic delivery feeling forced and rehearsed as opposed to her co-star’s more instinctual performance. Minnelli isn’t an actress so much as a personality and therefore Scorsese does wonders with her when he directs her in the musical numbers as he is able to show her off at her best, when she is singing and dancing. It’s when she’s called upon to face DeNiro that Scorsese’s attempt to marry two disparate modes of filmmaking makes the film truly fascinating because DeNiro’s work is so authentic that he appears to just be, whilst Minnelli’s more affected showbiz work feels stylized and exaggerated. And because Scorsese is so interested in looking at the tension between these two ways of acting, the film actually benefits from this clash.

The other thing that must be looked at when examining New York, New York are the musical numbers. Scorsese isn’t a natural for musical films, but he was more than up to the task when he took on New York, New York. Because of the film’s length and its challenging material, it’s clear that Scorsese was not only interested in making an interesting musical, but an important one. This is clear because he also includes a long, 10-minute musical number that breaks up the film and signals Francine’s success as a musical comedy star. As mentioned earlier, New York, New York owes a lot to A Star Is Born and Singin’ in the Rain. Both older films are also considered “important” musical films, and both have extended musical numbers that act as centrepieces in the film. In Cukor’s A Star Is Born, it’s the “Born in a Trunk” medley, in which Judy Garland’s character, a Vaudevillian, tells her rags-to-riches story through an extended musical number that runs over 15 minutes and acts as a showcase for Garland’s singing, dancing and performing talents. In Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, we see this in Gene Kelly’s “Gotta Dance” number – an extended bit that is a fictional Broadway show that Kelly’s character stars in, that again serves to highlight the star’s prodigious musical talent.

The key musical number, “Happy Endings” is part of a film-within-a-film. At this point in the plot, Francine and Jimmy have split up, and Francine’s gone on to become a major star. The fictional film is a vehicle and the musical number serves as a vehicle for Minnelli as well as for Scorsese to show his versatility and ability to helm a large and spectacular sequence. Never has Scorsese had so many elements to join on the screen. There are dancers, musicians, and actors, with large elaborate sets as well as intricate choreography. Filming these kinds of sequences is difficult because so much of the impact of these moments depend on how the visuals come off, and Scorsese scores handsomely. The sequence starts with Francine’s character playing an usher who imagines herself to be a musical comedy star, and she’s discovered by a smooth-voiced crooner who steps out of her way just as she’s about to ascend into superstardom. As is common with these long medleys, there’s a choppiness to the proceedings, but Scorsese handles these shifts in between songs and scenes masterfully, ably aping the kind of smooth work that his predecessors have done. And even though Scorsese thrives on depicting gritty intimacy, he’s also a master at showing off a spectacle, as seen in the finale of the “Happy Endings” sequence when the camera pans to a large staircase, with Francine descending slowly and gradually being inching closer to the camera. She’s wearing a red, over-the-top evening gown, and she’s flanked by dancers in sequined ruby. The colours come off, popping, as Scorsese chooses deep, jewel tones for his palette to mimic the extravagant colours of the Hollywood musical (without resorting to the drippy, juicy garishness of Technicolor).

There are visual cues in the musical number in which Scorsese also harks back to the classic Hollywood musical. These bits are subtle, but unmistakeable. Most notable is how he recreates a version of the “Gotta Dance” sequence from Singin’ in the Rain, that featured Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. The famed musical number took place in a bar with bright red walls that matched Charisse’s outfit. Scorsese pays homage by having part of Francine’s number take place in a nightclub that is also blood red, with dancers in the background gyrating rhythmically to the jazzy big band music.

It’s these stylistic choices that make New York, New York work despite it all getting away from Scorsese’s control. Because the film is a love letter to a bygone era, it slightly tips into corny area – especially when we’re seeing Minnelli on screen. Her scenes when she’s performing are unabashed showbusiness, and Scorsese indulges in his ardour for that more stylized type of direction. When he’s filming Francine’s recording session of “But the World Goes Round” he lovingly frames her in a dramatic spotlight, the world nearly pitch-black around her. She’s dressed in a (relatively) simple outfit of a white top, with sparkly jewellery at her shoulders and throat, and she’s heavily made up, with the period hairdo, and it’s here that Scorsese is really trying to recall Judy Garland. Minnelli’s singing – a throbbing, vibrato-laden belt – is reminiscent of Garland’s and the two look eerily alike in the number, and Scorsese pulls off a neat trick in getting Judy Garland (or at least a decent facsimile) to perform in a film in the 1970s. It’s his homage to Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born, in that he reaches for a moment – through a torch song – to move the plot forward by emphasising both the song’s optimism as well as melancholy (which are two qualities that define Minnelli’s screen persona) to narrate how the two characters are forced to adapt to their difficult circumstances – alone, away from each other – and despite it all, the world does move on. It’s in the “But the World Goes Round” number that Scorsese really taps into emotional intensity of the film’s message about perseverance. The song starts of slow, a shuffling pop ballad that becomes increasingly frantic as Minnelli starts to build up crescendo – it’s as if Scorsese doesn’t really believe in the message of perseverance and wants to convince himself and the audience by having Francine turn the number from a bluesy pop song into a full-throated anthem, which has Minnelli practically roar near the end (when she belts out the word “sound” so overcome is she with both the song’s message and her leather-lunged voice, she grips her head as if it were about to explode). Scorsese reaches transcendence in this moment and New York, New York doesn’t feel like a canny pastiche anymore. As beautifully as “Happy Endings” comes off – and it’s a masterful job – there is a feeling of effort behind the number, as if Scorsese wants the audience to know the gears moving behind the production. But he achieves seamlessness with “But the World Goes Round” showing off a stylish and rakish quality to his work that is far removed from its usual harsh grittiness.

In interviews, Scorsese talked about his love for films, especially when he was growing up. He came of age as a film goer during the Golden Age of Hollywood, consuming MGM and Warner Bros musicals but he’s become one of the most important figures of New Hollywood. But he doesn’t approach the older style with smugness but true affection which is why New York, New York should have worked. It isn’t snarky and though it’s mean at times (this is especially true in the DeNiro scenes), he doesn’t mock the Hollywood musical. He would take on the theme of entertainment later on his career – The King of Comedy is a notable example of his take on showbiz and celebrity culture – and his previous film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is also about a fledgling singer (though one with far less natural vocal resources) and so much of New York, New York is about wanted to achieve a certain goal and being frustrated. It’s a fitting theme to parallel Scorsese’s reach in making this film. Like Francine and Jimmy, Scorsese is a talented individual who is a master at what he does, but he also has an oversized ambition that threatens his output. At times, the film feels like a challenge or a dare that Scorsese has done on himself, to see if he can make the kind of film that Stanley Donen or Vincent Minnelli were able to.

The end of New York, New York is interesting because he again he wants to lovingly mesh the realism of contemporary filmmaking with the glossy fabulousness of a Hollywood musical. Usually in a Hollywood musical, the film ends on a high note – literally, if the musical signs off with a musical number. Often the cast will gather at the end to belt out the final tune (often the title tune) and we’re almost treated to a curtain call. The classic Hollywood musical was usually a musical comedy – something to work as escapist entertainment to distract audiences from the Great Depression or WWII. Though audiences sought escapist entertainment in the 1970s, Scorsese wasn’t interested in distracting his audiences, which is why New York, New York comes off so strange.

In the final sequence, we have Minnelli perform the title tune, written by her long-time collaborators, John Kander and Fred Ebb (who penned the songs for Minnelli’s Oscar-winning turn in Cabaret) By the end of the film, both Francine and Jimmy are established in their respective careers. He comes to see her at a nightclub and she’s singing the theme song. The song’s lyrics speak to the kind of cockeyed – sometimes foolish – optimism that people hold on to when they move to a large city like New York. It’s a city that is fabled to be a city of opportunities. People from nowhere appear there and with some luck and hard work, they can become successes. That is what happened to Jimmy and Francine who become big stars, despite the many obstacles (most self-induced) that get in their way. Like with “But the World Goes Round,” Minnelli invests the song with her brand of razzle dazzle showmanship. It’s here that we don’t really see Francine anymore, but are watching Minnelli. Unlike the optimism in “But the World Goes Round,” the optimism in “New York, New York” is sincere and hard-won. In the former musical number, she’s working overtime to convince herself and her audience, and she’s always near failure; but with “New York, New York” it’s far more of a triumphant call. Again, Scorsese shows his facility with filming musical numbers, though this scene is far simpler and less infused with meaning than “But the World Goes Round.” It works as a red herring, to reassure audiences that they’ll have a happy ending. But Scorsese wisely subverts this convention by having Jimmy and Francine stay apart. Jimmy wants to get back with Francine and leaves her a note, but she responds by ignoring it, leaving him waiting for her, until he realizes that she’s not coming back. Therefore, the musical ends on a bit of a deflating note, as we don’t close out with another rousing number – one in which our star pumps her fist in the air in victory – but instead we see two sad people, resigned to their fate, move on.

Watching New York, New York, one must admire Scorsese’s chutzpah in choosing to make such a strange film. The concerns of the film, mainly succeeding in show business while trying to maintain a self-destructive marriage doesn’t necessarily feel like a Scorsese film. He will go on to become synonymous with hard-bitten crime dramas that chronicle urban blight and urban decay, particularly the violence that results from urban blight, but he would also stretch himself again, surprising audiences by directing a lush period drama, The Age of Innocence or the grand historical epic, Kundun. But New York, New New York stands apart because of its audacity and nerve. The movie musical was facing an identity crisis in the 1970s as it was having to compete with gritter, more substantial fare, and critically and commercially, the film failed to find a large audience (though it has a small, cult following) A major hallmark of Scorsese’s filmography is about characters being too real and too recognizable; too much is shown. His characters are rarely ideals, and in fact, they often operate as either anti-heroes, villains, or as avatars to highlight moral depravity or destruction in an urban setting. New York, New York is an outlier in the film because rarely did Scorsese reach for such visual pleasure in his films. He wanted New York, New York to look beautiful, in its oft-deco splendour, and eschewed much of his usual themes of destruction and decay. He wanted the film to be a genuine addition to the genre’s canon and not operate as a dated, antiquated relic, but be vital in the landscape of 1970s cinema. That is why along with shedding much of his grittiness, he also avoided much of the genre’s squeaky cleanliness. Instead he pioneered a combination of two – something that has rarely been done before. And even if the film has a few more misses than hits, it’s still an admirable achievement to appreciate.

12 Days of Christmas: A Muppet Family Christmas

On the ’12 Days of Christmas’ I’m sharing my favorite Christmas movies, albums, Christmas episodes, specials, one for each day until we get to Christmas Day. 

Though Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show were three distinct shows, they shared a joyful, ebullient chaos with Jim Henson’s creations causing a raucous wherever they went. It was always a treat to see the worlds collide and in 1987’s A Muppet Family Christmas we see characters from the three different shows come together to celebrate the holidays. It’s a funny, heartwarming special and one that should be regular viewing on television.

The plot has Muppet comic Fozzie Bear invite his  friends to his mom’s home for Christmas. The conflict comes from a misunderstanding: Fozzie’s unaware that his mom is about to escape the winter for sunny Malibu for Christmas. She’s rented her home to Fraggle Rock’s Doc and Sprocket. Doc is planning on having a nice, quiet Christmas alone, but those plans are junked when the Muppet menagerie descend on Fozzie’s childhood home. Whilst the Muppets are all meeting, Miss Piggy – in her full 80s superstar glory – is going to be late because she needs to finish her showbiz photo shoot. The Muppets from Sesame Street come by to sing carols, and everyone finds out that there’s a massive blizzard coming, making Miss Piggy’s commute to the farm all the more treacherous.

Predictably, some of the funnest moments of A Muppet Family Christmas are the musical numbers. The Muppets are written as performers and so the shows and films have some fantastic music. Usually, the programmes feature original music, but in this special, we see the Muppets perform Christmas standards. The show opens with the Muppets crammed in a car, speeding in a pickup truck, belting Jerry Herman’s “We Need a Little Christmas” from Mame. It’s a great, poignant song – in the play, the titular character sings the song to buck up her friends as they face the holidays during the Great Depression. Originally, it’s a song about facing the holidays bravely by noting that we need the holiday spirit a little early.

Of course, a huge highlight of the special is when the Sesame Street gang arrive singing “Deck the Halls.”It’s so special to see Fozzie and Gonzo share the stage with Big Bird, Grover, the Count, Oscar, and (especially) Bert and Ernie. And Miss Piggy, of course, makes a fab entrance, decked out in winter finery, and gets a solo, warbling “Home for the Holidays.”

As expected, the hilarity turns to sentiment, when all of the Muppets get together and join in a rousing medley of Christmas favorites. And if that wasn’t heartwarming enough, we even get a lovely cameo from Jim Henson himself at the end, cheerily washing the many dishes from the Muppets’ Christmas party.

The special was written by Muppet vet Jerry Juhl, who’s responsible for some of the best Henson productions. He’s written a fantastic special – strangely underrated and largely forgotten in light of the more iconic Christmas Eve on Sesame Street or The Muppet Christmas Carol. Of all of the important Muppet characters, the Fraggle Rock gang is the least-celebrated one, and because their heyday was in the 80s, that does age the special (as does Miss Piggy’s 80s White Limozeen Dolly Parton look), but the show largely eschews any trendiness so it feels timeless for the most part. Unlike some of the later Muppet specials, it doesn’t rely on celebrity cameos – which often will timestamp the shows. Instead we’re treated to a lovely family reunion of some of the best children’s entertainment characters ever. It’s worth a watch and should be repeated viewing every holiday season.

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