The Cotton Club [DVD]
Screenplay : William Kennedy & Francis Ford Coppola (story by William Kennedy & Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1984
Stars : Richard Gere (Dixie Dwyer), Diane Lane (Vera Cicero), Gregory Hines (Sandman Williams), Lonette McKee (Lea Rose Oliver), Bob Hoskins (Owney Madden), James Remar (Dutch Schultz), Nicolas Cage (Vincent Dwyer), Allen Garfield (Abbadabba Berman), Fred Gwynne (Frenchy Demange)
Francis Ford Coppola was the most critically and commercially successful director of the 1970s. His achievements in that single decade—The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Conversation (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979), not to mention all the movies he produced and distributed—would be enough success to make an entire career.
The early 1980s, however, were a difficult period for Coppola artistically and creatively. He began to stake his career on making homages to earlier cinematic trends—the classical musical in One From the Heart (1982), the widescreen Technicolor juvenile delinquent film in The Outsiders (1982), and German expressionism in Rumble Fish (1983). He reached the pinnacle of this trend in 1984 with The Cotton Club, an ambitious dual homage to two of the great film genres of the 1930s: the gangster movie and the musical.
Brought in by producer Robert Evans, Coppola never had complete control over the production, as the script was constantly being rewritten, tensions were high on the set, and it wound up costing a reported $47 million. The stories regarding the tumultuous difficulties faced during the production of this movie are rivaled in legendary status only by Coppola's excesses in making Apocalypse Now. However, unlike Apocalypse Now, The Cotton Club did not end up being one of Coppola's greatest works. Rather, it is an interesting and entertaining ode to a time gone by that can best be seen as a missed opportunity for something greater.
The Cotton Club is first and foremost a love letter to the Jazz Age, the end of the Roaring Twenties when it seems that nothing could go wrong in America until it all did when the stock market crashed in 1929. If Coppola does one thing right in the movie, he nails the electric atmosphere of the late-night jazz club, even if his technique is more stylized and attention-grabbing than it probably needed to be. The entire movie has a self-consciously theatrical style, something that is brought to a climax in the end when Coppola literally turns the screen into a Broadway stage. He obviously wanted to make a deliriously upbeat movie, even if it includes a few brutal mob-style murders that hearken back to the grisliest moments in The Godfather.
The story takes place in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and much of the action is centered around The Cotton Club, an infamous jazz club in Harlem built with bootleggers' money and populated with wealthy businessmen, gangsters, and movie stars. For 17 years it was one of the centerpiece spectacles of the Harlem Renaissance, even though the racial politics of its success were shameful—blacks provided all the entertainment, whites made all the money. Coppola could have easily delved deeper into the complex racial tensions surrounding this infamous establishment, but he prefers to take it as a given and tell a different story. In some ways, this is a significant mistake, as a movie about The Cotton Club itself might have been more intriguing than a movie that simply uses it as an atmospheric backdrop.
The movie's central character is Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), a white jazz coronet player who gets mixed up with New York's organized crime underworld when he saves the life of gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar), who repays him by putting him to work. Dixie quickly learns that it's not necessarily a good thing to be in Dutch's employment, especially when he's stuck with menial jobs like picking up his laundry and escorting Dutch's teenage mistress, the precocious moll Vera Cicero (Diane Lane), who sleeps with Dutch only because he will someday give her a jazz club of her own.
The screenplay, credited to Coppola and novelist William Kennedy from a story they concocted along with The Godfather's Mario Puzo, is like a rough draft. There are lots of good ideas, but none of them are really worked out or honed; they're left in a shaggy, rough state. For instance, the narrative is loosely built around two sets of brothers, Dixie and his brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage), a loose cannon who aspires to be a gangster, and two black brothers, Sandman and Clay Williams (played by real-life brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines), who are professional tap dancers who aspire to work in the Cotton Club. There is obviously intended to be some kind of parallel between the two sets of brothers and the movie's larger themes of ambition, family, and loss of control, but none of this is ever made clear, nor do the four characters ever become more than passing acquaintances.
Where The Cotton Club works best is in individual scenes that don't always add up to anything in the larger narrative. There are several very good scenes between Sandman and Lea Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee), a gorgeous singer who can and does pass for white in order to further her career. They have a complex romantic relationship that is intensified by their troubled racial dimensions. As Sandman puts it at one point, he isn't even allowed into a club where she sings because he can't "pass" like she can; in essence, he's "too black." There is powerful potential here to explore the nature of race and how it is intertwined socially and emotionally, yet the movie falters here because Sandman and Lea's scenes together are never linked in a way that explains the evolution of their involvement; the individual scenes simply stand on their own for better or worse.
There are several good throw-away scenes with Bob Hoskins as Owney Madden, the owners of The Cotton Club. Hoskins has a bulldog intensity to his performance, and he is extremely likable because he's the only gangster in the movie who isn't psychotic. He has a wonderful scene with his second-in-command, the hulking Frenchy (Fred Gwynne), that follows Frenchy's having been kidnapped. The scene is both very funny in the way Owney goes on like a worried mother ("I was worried sick about you!") and, at the same time, touching in its honesty that these men who are so brutal in their business dealings can have a soft side.
The one performer who doesn't shine anywhere is Richard Gere, the supposed star of the movie who was signed on before a script was even written. Gere doesn't shine because his character doesn't. Dixie's purpose in the movie seems to be as an audience surrogate who mostly stands back and watches everything that goes on around him. He does get involved from time to time, most notably in a dangerous affair with Vera. Yet, even then he seems to just be going through motions, as if he's expected to do it. There's no real fire or urgency to any of it.
The movie's saving grace is its music (most of it by Duke Ellington, who was the band leader at The Cotton Club for many years before Cab Calloway took over) and its energy whenever dancers or singers take the stage. The Cotton Club is a musical in the sense that Coppola is perfectly willing to let the plot grind to a halt in order to indulge a musical moment—a little soft-shoe tap dancing here, a sultry lounge number there. The movie is punctuated throughout with the jazz music that made the era swing, and you can almost feel Coppola's pulse heighten when the music kicks in, even if he over-edits every scene instead of letting them play out naturally. The Cotton Club's handsome production values really sizzle, but one wishes that someone could have injected some of that fire into the story and characters, as well.
|The Cotton Club DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby 5.1 Surround|
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
|Languages||English (5.1), French (1.0)|
|Supplements||Original theatrical trailer|
|The Cotton Club is presented in a new anamorphic transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is generally good, although some will find it lacking in the finer details and overall sharpness. Much of the movie takes place at night and inside jazz clubs, so black levels and contrast become crucial to the movie's look. Black levels remain fairly solid throughout, although they do tend to betray quite a bit of grain in many scenes. Contrast is excellent, with strong whites that stand out against the dark backgrounds. Fleshtones appear natural, and the transfer is mostly clean, although the print used seems to have faded just a tad and has a few blemishes here and there.|
|The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack sounds great, as it gives the swinging jazz music—the movie's real star—the breadth and scope it deserves. The surround channels are often active during the musical sequences, and imagining is used discretely to suggest how the music would sound inside The Cotton Club from different positions. The overall soundtrack is clean and distortion-free.|
|The only supplement included is the original theatrical trailer, which is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1).|
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick