A brief and highly subjective account of Manhattan’s bohemian heyday, New York in the ’50s is grounded in the sort of nostalgia that can easily slip into doddering utopian arrogance. Thankfully, with a loose and lively tone, it exhibits a fondness for the period without being wholly dismissive of the intervening five decades. Based on journalist-novelist Dan Wakefield’s 1992 book of the same name, the film charts his pilgrimage from Indianapolis (portrayed as the heart of Eisenhowerian blandness) to Columbia University, the Village, Spanish Harlem, and points beyond. Wakefield encounters all the familiar high points along the way, from the Beats to jazz to Salinger-worship to free love and its counterpart, psychoanalysis, with a detour or two through incipient alcoholism and suicidal depression. Director Betsy Blankenbaker mixes archival footage and on-screen interviews with Wakefield’s friends and contemporaries, including a wispy Joan Didion and the Voice‘s own Nat Hentoff, to very PBS-like effect.
Engaging as it is, New York in the ’50s doesn’t reveal anything about the era that can’t be found elsewhere and in greater detail. Wakefield’s New York hosannas revolve around an “us versus them” conceit (“them” being anyone lacking the sense to move to Manhattan) that the film fails to treat with the skepticism it deserves. It never distinguishes itself from the author’s presence or point of view, and as a result, the title promises something more expansive than Blankenbaker can deliver.