Released days ago in Netflix, the documentary miniseries Suppose New York is a city presents the latest raid of Martin Scorsese on the streaming platform (after the premiere of The Irishman and Rolling Thunder Review). This time it’s about an overview of the history of the last fifty years of New York from the lucid and keen eyes of comedian, writer and occasional actress Fran Lebowitz (Frances Ann Lebowitz), a Manhattan icon.
The format of the documentary, spread over seven half-hour episodes, is that of a long interview by Scorsese with his friend Lebowitz, edited with his public talks, fragments of classic films and cameos by great figures of music such as Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington or Serge Gainsbourg. Lebowitz’s account and opinions on the city and its customs have a counterpoint in the music that is heard throughout each episode. Music that adds to the atmosphere of the city (“No one is as loved as musicians,” she says), before and after her arrival in 1970, but also movie music for a cinephile who can no longer bear going into a cinema. What follows is pure New York sound with a few exceptions denoting the city’s influence on the world in chronological order.
“How delicious the mambo” (Pérez Prado Orchestra, 1947). The impetuous sound of the Cuban pianist and percussionist Pérez Prado’s orchestra (who visited Buenos Aires in 1948) places New York City around the time Fran Lebowitz came to the world in Morristown, New Jersey. It is also the sound of a city made of migrations and of the mutual influence between jazz and the music of Cuba and Puerto Rico that contributed timbral and rhythmic diversity. Following the instrumental style of Stan Kenton, Pérez Prado became the world reference of the mambo anticipating the boom of the cha-cha and the salsa culture already in the 70s.
“Street Scene” (Alfred Newman, 1953). Scorsese uses the film’s music in several episodes of the series How to catch a millionaire (Jean Negulesco), a comedy that brought together Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall in the leading roles. Newman, responsible for soundtrack original, he is one of the most prolific composers in the history of Hollywood with a filmography that goes from 1931 to 1970. During that period he was nominated for an Oscar 45 times and won it nine. The sequences chosen by Scorsese account for a symphonic score with jazzy inflections in the style of Gershwin. Much of what Newman composed is what we naturalize in our ears as movie music. He died in California in 1970.
“Come Fly With Me” (Frank Sinatra, 1958). With this seductive swing Sinatra opened album 14 of his discography. Composed by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, it is one of his great classics, although at the time “La voz” resisted the cover of the album, which seemed to him to be a warning from the TWA airline. His fans didn’t care too much and Come Fly With Me, the album, quickly reached No. 1 on Billboard and was nominated for Best Record of the Year at the 1959 Grammy Awards. Sinatra’s relationship with Manhattan is inevitable and Lebowitz’s tale uncovers an unthinkable history between the top crooner and Muhammad Ali.
“New York’s My Home” (Ray Charles, 1960). Another song of devotion to the city of skyscrapers in the voice of an artist capable of moving from jazz to blues and soul to rock and roll almost inadvertently, as if they were the same thing. This is an example of the most jazzy Ray Charles and closes side A of a concept album in which the songs refer to the geography of the United States: The Genius Hit The Road. It was composed by Gordon Jenkins (Sinatra, Billie Holliday, Johnny Cash, among many others) and Charles was in charge of describing the uniqueness of the city, taking his unmistakable register to the expressive peak. “Hollywood has movie stars and cocktail bars, sparkling cars and wonderful weather but it doesn’t have the subway and you rarely find a taxi when it rains, that’s why New York is my home,” summarizes Ray. Lebowitz likes this.
“REM Blues” (Duke Ellington, 1962). Charles Mingus is one of the musicians Lebowitz frequents on his initiatory trip to New York. The writer underlines the bassist’s particular reverence for Ellington with whom he works as a trio alongside drummer Max Roach on the album. Money Jungle, recorded in September 1962 in New York. Ellington surprised the jazz world with the release of this album composed especially for this trio that put him on the threshold of modern jazz, between a post bop and experiences on the edge of avant-garde composition. A sonic landmark of the city where it is heard.
“Controdanza” (Nino Rota, 1963). Another classic movie Scorsese relies on is The Gatopardo (Luchino Visconti), which brought together Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon in the leading roles. The neo-romantic style of Rota (who also composed symphonic pieces) was also chosen by Federico Fellini whose Sweet life it sounds in other passages of the documentary series. Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone (responsible for the instrumental score of the 78 World Cup) redefined the idea of the original music of the films at the zenith of the Cineccitá.
“Foggy Notion” (The Velvet Underground, 1969). If Sinatra is the voice that leads to an idealization of New York as the thriving city where all dreams are possible, that of Lou Reed in his first steps with Velvet Underground is that of his decadence where all nightmares can materialize. This is the context in which Lebowitz comes to town and it is what definitely ties her to it. “Foggy Notion” is a outtake recorded in 1969 that was released only in 1985 on the album VU just as The Jesus and Mary Chain (re) installed the Velvet legend in the context of the ’80s. It’s the punk buzz to come, an obsessive beat of grinding guitars and Reed’s voice in a rare register. Successful inclusion of a rarity from the group’s repertoire that sums up late New York modernism.
“Jet Boy” (The New York Dolls, 1973). Lebowitz recalls his early years in New York and the attraction of excursions to the Mercer Arts Center where the group excited a handful of initiates. The place collapsed in an implosion mirrored in the collapse of the group that could not stand the routine of excesses and scandal in which they had gotten themselves. It reaches the brief cameo they have in the series to demonstrate the ambiguous brutality built with that image of transvestite rockers and a bridge sound between the decadence of the Stones of the early 70s and the violence of punk. Another 100% New York product.
“I Want You” (Marvin Gaye, 1976). In a sequence of the documentary, Lebowitz refers to the inexplicable joy that the music of the Motown label produces, of which Marvin Gaye was one of its greatest stars. From What’s Goin On (1971), the singer had begun to expand the limits of soul in political and sonic terms. In the series we see him filming a rehearsal where he begins to shape the classic “I Want You” with his band already involved in the fusion and jazz rock roll. Perhaps less successful than its predecessors, it is an equally essential album where Marvin Gaye rehearses his transition to disco sound.
“Money” (The Flying Lizards, 1979). One of the greatest rarities of the soundtrack One of the Scorsese series is this deconstruction of the rock and roll classic “Money (That’s all I Want)” that The Beatles played to the ground in their routines in the Hamburg days. The Flying Lizards were a London-based art collective capable of mutating, or including occasional members, Robert Fripp. The version is partly reminiscent of Devo’s mechanization but also of Laurie Anderson’s art-techno rhapsodies. The sound surprise of the documentary. Invites you to rediscover an unclassifiable group (art punk? Give pop?)
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