The idea of a meta-cinematic musical about musicals has been done before by a great many people but is La La Land a remake of the Martin Scorsese film that not many people have seen?
Poor La La Land. The Oscars envelope snafu which resulted in several producers giving impassioned speeches to an audience of millions before having their awards ripped from them live on stage has become an inextricable part of its legacy. It also revealed just how many people were rooting for it to fail. It had been the betting favourite for quite some time before the awards show and its initial Best Picture win seemed predictable, inevitable and unsatisfying. Why were so many people hoping for it to lose? Well, partially because of the American academy’s image problem of elite whiteness and a narcissistic obsession with not just filmmaking itself but, specifically, Hollywood and its mystical powers. On top of all of that, however, La La Land is a hugely derivative film. Of course it’s meant to be, in a lot of ways. But, for me at least, there is no better example of the point where the homage ceases, and the plagiarism begins, than when you examine it against Martin Scorsese’s highly underrated 1977 film New York, New York.
They are remarkably similar films in terms of both themes and structure. On the most basic level, aside from their similarities in titling, they are both films about two young, creative, leads falling in and out of love while trying to make their dreams and careers work against the backdrop of a legendary showbiz city. Beyond that they are films about your life’s story being told through music and the melancholy of knowing that success means you can’t have everything you want.
In both films a young, male, jazz musician clashes with a young, female, performer before beginning a doomed romance, jumping through time to watch the characters struggle with both the harsh reality of being a touring musician and the shame of personal failure, resulting in the male lead becoming the owner of a successful jazz nightclub while the female lead becomes a hugely successful film star. During the climax of each film, one of the two leads watches the other perform a rendition of a song which had been progressively developed by the characters throughout the film, leading to a bittersweet realisation that their relationship was genuine but unsustainable. Like I said, they’re very similar. Which is not a crime. La La Land is after all, like New York, New York, a dreamlike eulogy to an outmoded era of film. But, aside from the fact that it came first and is the critical/financial underdog, New York, New York is a considerably more complex and accomplished piece of cinema.
One thing that’s very clear from the production design alone, for which New York, New York was initially panned and La La Land won an Oscar, is how much each film is influenced by the films of Stanley Donen. Both films make prominent use of Donen’s love for blocks of bright primary colours and the iconic, moon-like, streetlamps that were featured in famous musicals of Donen’s era. But whereas La La Land is very grounded in the reality of Los Angeles’ geography, New York, New York was shot almost entirely on soundstages. Its indoor and outdoor, urban and country, locations being specially constructed for each scene. The level of detail put in by Scorsese and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs is incredibly rare for a modern Hollywood film, it’s very comparable to the colour and design work which Stanley Kubrick would put into his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, over 20 years later.
If you were to identify the key difference in their approaches to the same idea, it would be that New York, New York is an exercise in modernism while La La Land is postmodernism. Like most of Scorsese’s work there’s a great amount of surreal qualities to the film, but it’s always delivered sincerely. La La Land, alternatively, has often struck people as being somewhat sarcastic or even unwittingly cynical. A lot of this is due to its differences in pedigree.
Both De Niro and Scorsese came to New York, New York right off of the back of Taxi Driver and Liza Minnelli, too, was at the pinnacle of her career. Being a more unconventional take on a musical, very similar to the way in which Donen and Gene Kelly used diegetic musical numbers to homage classical Hollywood in their film Singin’ In The Rain, Scorsese’s New York, New York places a lot of strain on Minnelli as the sole singer of the film’s big musical numbers. Only time will tell how much La La Land’s highly praised, award winning, score will be remembered by audiences, but you do have to wonder if La La Land’s central, Oscar-winning, theme “City of Stars” will ever be considered a patch on Minnelli’s rendition, or Sinatra’s subsequent cover, of “Theme from New York, New York” (yes, that one). Ultimately your feelings about each film’s use of music will come down to a matter of taste. The execution of each film in terms of characterisation and performance is a little different.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone deliver solid performances of quite vapid characters who rarely encounter any kind of meaningful conflict. Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro, particularly, deliver infinitely more complex performances. The core relationship of La La Land ultimately breaks down because of a career-based decision, the marriage in New York, New York (which also contains a child) breaks down due to personality, ego, drug abuse, emotional abuse, violence and career. De Niro’s character, Jimmy Doyle, is unable to reconcile his ego to his wife’s success, he’s aware that he won’t be able to properly process or display his emotions so he makes the decision to leave which can be viewed as either selfishness or mercy. The issue of pride is something that affects Ryan Gosling’s character in La La Land very much too but with nowhere near the same intensity or emotion. Ironically, Damien Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash, was far more in tune with New York, New York in this respect. Both of those films perfectly capture the violent nature of passion and obsession. Knowing that Chazelle is capable of displaying greater emotional complexity, coupled with a breezy performance from Gosling, is a big part of the reason that La La Land feels like a hollow remake sometimes rather than a heartfelt homage.
Both La La Land and New York, New York heavily revolve around the notion that a person can’t “have it all”. Jimmy Doyle describes it as “a major chord”. “A major chord is when everything in your life works out perfectly. When you have everything that you could ever possibly want. You have the woman you want, you have the music you want and you have enough money to live comfortably. That’s a major chord”. Both films use a musical number to display a dream sequence at the end of the film which depicts a perfect relationship between the two leads. One where the male lead is completely capable of overcoming their pride and being perfectly supportive. Scorsese, however, embraces the delusional nature of this fantasy and allows his film to end on a minor chord. A cold, perhaps even a little bleak, but emotionally honest ending. The semi-reconciliation of Gosling and Stone’s characters adds to this sensation that what the film is telling you is that fame really is worth it. You can be a star, you can return in total magnanimity to your old service job and be the envy of the next dreamer making coffee, sit down on a fun whim with your perfect partner in a nice, chic, jazz club and be serenaded with a glowing apology from your ex-lover that leaves you with a sense of catharsis.
Of course the very name La La Land implies a detachment from reality but because the principal characters never have to fight against anything much more than their own self-doubt in order to find success the result comes off as a little naive, if not disingenuous. New York, New York is a film that covers a noticeably enormous amount of the same ground in a much more sincere, and relatable, manner. It’s for that reason, coupled with the astounding cinematography and direction (the part where Kovacs and Scorsese orchestrate a V-J Day celebration in the streets of Manhattan so that De Niro is pointed out to the audience by a giant neon arrow [pictured above] is magnificent), that I would strongly recommend New York, New York over La La Land to a person who had seen neither.