The Cotton Club was one of America's most famous nightclubs in the 20s and 30s. Most of the greatest black entertainers of the day played there, to all white audiences who came down to Harlem to slum. Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway were frequent performers there, as were some of the best dancers and singers of the era. The Cotton Club uses the nightclub as a backdrop for a tale of gangsters and entertainers. Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) is a white cornet player who makes the unintentional mistake of saving Dutch Schulz's life. Schulz takes a liking to him, in his psychopathic way, and recruits Gere's brother (Nicholas Cage) as a stooge. Gere himself is put on the payroll to escort Schulz's newest floozie (Diane Lane) and perform odd jobs. He quickly finds himself embroiled in Schulz's violent and crazy world, with no way out. To make matters worse, he and Lane fall in love. Meanwhile, tap dancer Gregory Hines and his brother are hired by Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), a more amiable and reasonable gangster who runs the Cotton Club. Hines quickly sheds his brother to pursue a solo career, and takes up with a beautiful singer (Lonetta McKee) who is trying to pass for white so that she can make it to Broadway. There is a great deal more plot, mostly presented in the manner of a tapestry. The various plot strands may be only peripherally related, but Coppola and his co-screenwriter, novelist William Kennedy, make each strand so interesting that I didn't mind an early lack of cohesion. By the end of the film, they manage to wrap things up quite nicely.
Plot isn't what's important to The Cotton Club, though it is handled well enough. Character and atmosphere carry the film. The Cotton Club itself is practically the main character in the film. Coppola returns to it again and again, each time showing us a classic instrumental number, or a sizzling tap dance, or a jazz or blues standard. In fact, by number of songs performed and their quality, The Cotton Club qualifies as a musical, and a very good one, in the modern style.
The lavish sums of money spent on The Cotton Club have obviously gone in large part to achieve meticulous and beautiful period detail. The Roaring Twenties in New York are convincingly recreated. My only criticism of the physical presentation is that I am beginning to get the impression that, prior to World War Two, all of life occurred in soft focus, warm lighting, and subdued earth tones. This stereotypical way of photographing the past is getting a bit shopworn for me, even if it is Coppola's forte. Didn't they ever have bright, clear, sunny days back then? Of its type, the photography is lovely, and there are some very nicely lit scenes, particularly a love scene between Gere and Lane in which light streaming through a wire mesh on their naked bodies not only creates a beautiful effect, but appropriately symbolizes their characters' plights. Few directors are capable of even thinking up such a shot, much less effectively executing it.
The second major strength of The Cotton Club lies in its characters and the performances of the actors. One of a show biz team dumping the other is a real Hollywood chestnut, but Gregory Hines really did it to his brother Maurice, and their recollections of the experience bring new life to the cliche. Coppola has found a good way to make use of Richard Gere's basic passivity, and Gere brings just enough fire to the role to convince us that circumstances hold him down, not character flaws. James Remar is chilling as Dutch Schulz. His sudden outbursts of rage and violence are a counterpoint to the more stable mobsters Coppola displayed in his Godfather films. Here, crime is a disease, not a family business. On the other hand, Bob Hoskins' Owney Madden and Fred Gwynne's Frenchie (Owney's partner) give us the gangster as vaudevillean. Their banter and cameraderie conceal ruthlessness which Coppola and Kennedy only reveal indirectly. They're fine fellows if you don't make trouble for them, but they'll kill you if you get too much in their way. Julian Beck, one of the fathers of American experimental theater, is very fine in a small role as Schulz's bodyguard. Gwen Verdon, Nicholas Cage, Lonetta McKee, and Diane Lane are all good in their supporting roles, as is the rest of the very large cast. Coppola's films rarely suffer from poor acting, and The Cotton Club is no exception.
The Cotton Club is definitely a Coppola film, and a good one. Most of what is good about it is at least partially his doing, and all of its few flaws can be traced back to Coppola. Seeing some of the other Christmas films, which were apparently made by men who have little sense of how a camera can be used to tell a story and create a mood, makes me appreciate Coppola all the more. The film's somewhat scattershot approach is also characteristic of Coppola's reluctance to part with any of the good stuff he has come up with. Two or three less subplots would probably have made for a better film. The expense of the film is also classic Coppola. You can always see where the money went on a Coppola film, and it's hard to say that he should have cut this or done without that to save on costs, but his frequently astronomical budgets usually hurt him in the end, by making him too expensive for studios to hire. Coppola was interested in directing the forthcoming Agnes of God, but after seeing him flood The Cotton Club with money, the studio decided to entrust it to the less talented but more disciplined Norman Jewison. Coppola is also a walking controversy machine, and the gossip and lawsuits which surrounded The Cotton Club must have had a negative impact.
Finally, though, all other difficulties aside, Coppola's talent can make him worth the bother. This is certainly the case with The Cotton Club. There is a sequence towards the end of the film which is probably the finest piece of editing I've seen in the last ten years. The editor deserves much credit, but I have no doubt at all that it is Coppola's montage, Coppola's idea. Coppola's gifts as a writer and director make The Cotton Club one of the high points of this year in film.
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