Earlier this week I watched a terrific documentary about Woody Allen. It included a clip I hadn’t seen in years and years, and seeing it three days ago thrilled me as much as it did when I saw it for the first time 34 years ago. I’m referring to the opening sequence of “Manhattan”: a series of shots of New York City captured in wide-screen black and white by the great cinematographer Gordon Willis, spooling out to the strains of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” played by pianist Gary Graffman and the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Zubin Mehta.
The movie was released during the spring of 1979, when the city was not that far removed from the fiscal crises of the mid-1970’s. (Anyone else remember this infamous front page from The Daily News?)
It’s been easy to forget during the high-flying days of Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, but NYC was a pretty gritty place in the seventies; the crime rate was high and Times Square–filled with prostitutes, XXX-rated movie theaters and drug dealers–was a long way off from its present-day Disneyfied incarnation. It was the city that made Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, snap.
But Woody Allen saw something else. In his book Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies, James Sanders writes, “In the broadest terms, the [opening] sequence was a timely reminder–for New Yorkers no less than those who lived elsewhere–that for all its troubles the city still possessed an urban character of unmatched power, well worth fighting for. But the film also left no doubt that the most precious parts of that urbanism–at least in Woody Allen’s eyes–were those of the past.”
At one point, Allen’s character in the movie, Isaac, delivers these lines: “This is really a great city. I don’t care what anybody says. It’s a knockout.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Miscellany: Gary Graffman’s recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” with the NY Philharmonic has always been my favorite, probably because it was the first one with which I became familiar. (The downside of the movie’s opening sequence, of course, is that it offers an abbreviated performance, only 3+ minutes, down from its full 16+ minute length). In 1979, Graffman’s performing career was curtailed by an injury to his right hand. Indeed, his performance heard on the “Manhattan” soundtrack is one of the last times he was able to play with both hands. Since that time, his performances have been limited to the small repertoire written exclusively for the left hand. He turned 85 last month and continues to teach at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.