When former mayor Ed Koch took office in 1978, New York City was literally burning. He inherited a city on the brink of bankruptcy and battled overwhelming epidemics of arson, AIDS, and homelessness. Koch became an unlikely hero, rising from the status of an underdog to slay what he called “wackos,” “nuts,” and “schmucks” with his sharp tongue and larger-than-life public personality.
Now, as the subject of the new documentary “Koch,” opening Feb. 1 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika, Koch even has his own theme song, whose bouncy melody reflects how animated and theatrical he still is at 88, laughing about the time he almost “peed” on former Governor George Pataki in an elevator.
The team behind “Koch” includes three Columbia alumni: first-time director and filmmaker Neil Barsky, Journalism ’84; producer Jenny Carchman, BC ’94; and production associate Annie Salsich, BC ’10. Barsky first approached Koch’s former chief of staff, Diane Coffey, in the spring of 2010 with his plan for the project.
“I think all great movies need two things: great stories and great characters,” said Barsky. The story behind “Koch” is the city’s transformation, as it shows the neon decadence of 42nd Street, the scorched shells of the South Bronx, the graffiti-covered subway cars and looted shops in Harlem during the 1977 blackout.
“And Ed Koch is a witty, controversial, in your face character,” Barsky added. He is a cheerleader for the city, greeting commuters on the Brooklyn Bridge during the 1980 Transit Strike with his catchphrase: “How’m I doing?” And like a true New Yorker, he is never afraid to ruffle a few feathers.
While Koch gained support with his no-nonsense attitude, his efforts were not without critics. Even today, many complain about the commercialized Times Square. However, “Koch” will surely make audiences appreciate how far the city has come. “I would like the film to help us all understand how New York came to be what it is today, because that period in the ’70s and ’80s was so critical,” Barsky said.
Carchman, a veteran filmmaker whose previous projects include Martin Scorsese’s “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” was drawn to the project because she grew up during Koch’s three terms.
“The story of Koch was the background for my childhood and adolescence, and it was exciting to return to that time,” she said.
Drawing on Barsky’s background in journalism, using archival headlines, photos and footage to immerse audiences in the tumultuous history of New York City and Koch’s administration, “Koch” provides a unique look into the commanding public figure and the fragile man.
“It takes a solid person who understands fairness to be at the top,” Carchman said. “And it’s lonely up there.”
A particularly moving scene is Koch’s 86th birthday, when he quotes “The Great Gatsby” to describe the bridge newly renamed in his honor: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”
“It’s a gorgeous description of the reasons why so many of us live here,” Carchman said.
While Koch and New York may seem like the oddest of couples—a little known reformer from Greenwich Village coming to own the commercial and cultural center of the world—the film shows, through all the ups and downs, that they truly are made for each other.