When people talk about the "real" New York, they usually mean the dangerous, thrilling city of 30 years ago defined by violent crime, downtown art, underground music and "Saturday Night Live." To pinpoint that era -- as glamorous in its way as the Jazz Age -- you could do worse than 1978 to 1989, the tenure of three-time mayor Ed Koch.

"Koch," opening locally one week after Hizzoner's death at the age of 88, is a clear-eyed but affectionate look at a man who defined New York like few others. The film trumpets his legacy -- notably the transformative housing initiatives that journalist Wayne Barrett calls "better than the Pyramids" -- and it duly notes the corruption scandals that helped to end Koch's mayoral career. But like most of us, director Neil Barsky (a former journalist who grew up in Merrick) isn't interested in what this mayor did, but in what he meant.

To that end, "Koch" is a treasure trove of little moments that illuminate a famously cantankerous, sharp-elbowed, showboating personality. We see Koch trashing opponents, staring down striking transit workers, shutting up street-corner hecklers and appearing on "SNL" to talk Eddie Murphy off a ledge. It's familiar territory, but great fun to tread.

Koch's sexuality remains a question, and Barsky opts to be a gentleman about it. He nicely handles the tricky accusations that this presumably closeted mayor conveniently ignored the AIDS crisis, but there's only so far Barsky can push for the truth. "It's none of your business," Koch says cheerfully, adding one of his favorite oaths.

You may find yourself scanning Koch's apartment for signs of a companion, but there's only one easy chair parked in front of the tube. In fact, the place looks barely occupied, as if Koch did his real living on the streets of the city he loved. "This belongs to me," he says of New York. "It's extraordinary. Thank you, God."

PLOT A documentary on the cantankerous, charismatic, quintessential New York City mayor

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Unrated (occasional strong language)


BOTTOM LINE This poignantly timed film bids a fond farewell to a man who defined his city like few others.