New York eras of pre-pop music


Until recently, I thought that, just as Frank Sinatra’s popular song “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)”  was first performed in the film Robin and the Seven Hoods, another ode to a US city, “New York, New York”,  also originated in one of the singer’s later films.

Until, that is, I saw Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary,on BBC4, and realised that the song was only adopted by Sinatra a couple of years after it was premiered by Liza Minnelli in the Martin Scorsese film of the same name.

The film centres around the relationship between a saxophonist, played by Robert De Niro, and a band singer, played by Minnelli,  during the post-World War Two period when jazz music trends moved from big band swing to improvisational be-bop and when recording and films were becoming available to singers, like Sinatra, whose ambition and popularity were pulling them beyond their band origins.

New York, New York reminds you that at one time Scorsese was a director whose films were not wholly concerned with the male crime world. However, it does have two scenes which prefigure two later films which are certainly on that theme, all of them involving Robert De Niro. One is the early shots of musician Jimmy Doyle characterised by his Hawaiian shirt with its slogans and bright colours which anticipate the early shot in Cape Fear of the tattooed back of the psychopathic Max Cady.  Another is the scene of Doyle making a phone call which we can’t hear (partly because of the playing of the club band) but which we sense will have serious consequences due to Doyle’s changing facial expressions, similar to the shot in Goodfellas where Jimmy Conway watches the behaviour off-camera of a fellow gangster whom he is forming a plan to kill, his organised but violent thoughts evoked by the driving guitar rhythms of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”.

Of course, Scorsese’s contemporary Francis Ford Coppola is also most famous for films about criminals – The Godfather trilogy – and coincidentally he too essayed a film about a past era of musical performers. Where New York New York covered the period immediately after World War Two, The Cotton Club features a mix of real-life and fictional gangsters, musicians and dancers associated with the Harlem night-club in the Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Like New York, New York, The Cotton Club was filmed on large studio sets rather than on locations such as the directors had previously preferred. Neither film was a success at the time, and both, in my opinion, suffer from having less attention being paid to narrative and characterisation than to design and music. The Cotton Club does have a notable scene towards the end where gangland violence is interspersed with a male dancer’s energetic rehearsal. It is a welcome memory of Coppola’s more successful films, where he depicts Mafia killings taking place at the same time as, and under the social and religious camouflage of, weddings or christenings.

And returning to our first reference, Frank Sinatra, Alex Gibney’s documentary stated that, unlike the singer Johnny Fontane in The Godfather, Sinatra did not get his film role in From Here to Eternity through Mafia influence. Gibney’s explanation was that it had more to with rival actor Eli Wallach asking for too much money!

Some parts of present-day New York which would certainly have been recognised by the 1940s characters of New York, New York and even by the earlier characters of The Cotton Club :



The Statue of Liberty – famous landmark for immigrants arriving in New York by ship since 1886.




The concourse of Grand Central railway station, completed in 1913.



The Carnegie Hall music venue, built in 1891.



The Empire State Building, built in 1931, surrounded by earlier high-rise buildings.



One of the many 19th century sculptures in Central Park, but perhaps a less likely one: of Sir Walter Scott.



Part of the 1920s art deco foyer of the Chrysler Building.




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