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Savant Short Review:

The Cotton Club

The Cotton Club
MGM Home Entertainment
1984 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 127 (129?) m.
Starring Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Gregory Hines, Lonette McKee, Bob Hoskins, James Remar, Nicolas Cage, Allen Garfield, Fred Gwynne, Gwen Verdon
Cinematography Stephen Goldblatt
Production Designer Richard Sylbert
Film Editor Robert Q. Lovett, Barry Malkin
Original Music John Barry
Writing credits William Kennedy, Francis Ford Coppola from story by William Kennedy, Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo
Produced by Robert Evans, Dyson Lovell
Directed by Francis (Ford) Coppola

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

With a nice rebuttal letter from "B", below.

Savant has never read a truly positive review of this very good movie ... and would like to know what everyone's problem is! The Cotton Club had some serious legal problems when it came out, something to do with production funds, that mysteriously put the hex on its reception. Was there some kind of Hollywood backlash against Francis Coppola at the time?


Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) is a pianist and cornet player in a 1928 New York club scene run by a volatile mix of Irish, Jewish, Italian, and German gangsters. After witnessing the murder of Irish thug Joe Flynn (John P. Ryan), Dixie involuntarily becomes a private entertainer and errand boy for mob boss Dutch Schultz (James Remar), a power-mad, grimacing troublemaker. Dixie's crook brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) goes to work for Schultz as an enforcer by riding the reluctant Dixie's coattails. A further complication is that Dixie has fallen in love with Dutch's girl, Vera Cicero (Diane Lane), an ambitious flapper who wants Dutch to buy her a nightclub of her own. Dixie may find his way out of trouble through the intervention of the magisterial gangsters Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) and Frenchie Lemange (Fred Gwynne), owners of the exclusive Cotton Club. Owney considers sending Dixie out west to run his interests in Hollywood, just as the studios are scouting Dixie as a possible new movie star.

Running parallel to this is the story of Sandman and Clay Williams (Gregory and Maurice Hines) a dynamite dancing team who've just been hired at the Cotton Club, where all the performers are black but the clientele is restricted to whites. Sandman is crazy enough for singer Lea Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee) to pursue her at the expense of his partnership. He also antagonizes the club bouncers, who treat the performers like troublesome animals.

To tell the truth, Coppola did experience kind of a backlash, that began with an exposé published in Esquire during the filming of Apocalypse Now. The article, from about 1978, was a stack of arrogant-sounding letters where Coppola took James Cameron's King of the World attitude, proclaiming the show a creative quest that his production staff didn't properly appreciate. After dressing down his people for their lack of humility, a followup Coppola letter launched into a self-aggrandizing discussion of why he should drop the 'Ford' from his name and become just Francis Coppola, as he's billed on this film.

The Cotton Club is a big movie with lots of subplots jammed with interesting actors playing roles based on real personalities of the late '20s. 'Cameos' include Gloria Swanson (Diane Venora), Charlie Chaplin, Duke Ellington, James Cagney, Fannie Brice, and Cab Calloway. Dutch Schultz, a.k.a. Arthur Flegenheimer, was a real gangster whose story is woven into the movie, along with that of Lucky Luciano (Joe Dallesandro). Diane Lane's Vera Cicero gets herself a nightclub and uses the line, 'Hello Suckers!' as her trademark, making her a transposition of 'Texas' Guinan, a real nightclub impresariatrix previously portrayed by Phyllis Diller in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass! Nicolas Cage's 'Mad Dog Dwyer' is really Mad Dog Coll, a short-lived killer whose famous demise is faithfully recreated here. And Laurence Fishburne plays the real gangster Bumpy Rhodes, the Harlem neighborhood resistance to Schultz's attempted takeover: Fishburne would recreate the role as 'Bumpy Johnson' in an MGM film called Hoodlum made in 1997.

As if that wasn't enough, Coppola's first-class casting decorates the movie with so many familiar faces, you'd think the studio system had come back. Old timer Fred Gwynne, a great actor who never got out from under his Munsters curse, has the best scene in the movie with relative newcomer Bob Hoskins. Allen Garfield, Tom Waits and John Ryan make colorful hoods. Dixie's family is fleshed out with welcome bits from veteran Gwen Verdon and fledgling dirty dancer Jennifer Grey. And there are other names I frankly missed this time around, like Woody Strode (how do you 'miss' Woody Strode?) and Bill Graham.

The Cotton Club is a showy, old-fashioned gangster epic that uses all the old material (stock story elements, machine-gun montages) and interweaves them with musical material from the Club's dance floor. Although Coppola never jumps the line into free-form showoff style tricks, as with the later Tucker, he shows he's going in that direction in the slightly kaleidoscopic ending, a final dance number which appears to be happening simultaneously on stage, and in the middle of Grand Central Station. Yes, all the acting isn't perfect but most of it is excellent. Add to all this the veneer of Richard Sylbert designs and all the John Barry music in between the standards, and there was more than enough to keep this reviewer heartily entertained. The violence quotient, after a pretty rough beginning, was pretty low as well ....

MGM Home Entertainment's DVD of The Cotton Club contains an excellent transfer of the movie (which the IMDB says was screened in 70mm on first release). The picture is flawless, as if it were a release of a new title. MGM's cover art is appropriately elegant. Some copywriter confused the Bob Hoskins and James Remar characters in the plot synopsis on the back. Savant considers this disc a major bargain of the summer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Cotton Club rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 12, 2001


Dear Glenn: I am a particular fan of The Cotton Club and saw Orion's excellent 70mm release print four times in two weeks at NY's old Loew's State in late 1984. I still remember the movie being shown in a wider aspect ratio than 1.78:1; being unable to compare that print to the new transfer, I can't say which is really preferable, but I liked the width back then. [Then, I also prefer the wide 70mm prints of Days of Heaven to the roughly 1.85 35mm and video print.]

The main critical problems faced by the film can be summed up readily: story, casting, musical numbers.

Granted, Cotton isn't based on a well crafted novel like The Godfather, but with Puzo, Coppola and then extremely hot novelist William Kennedy all credited as writers, the weak, poorly structured narrative is a disappointment. It starts out as parallel stories about two sets of brothers, but goes fascinatingly awry. There are a lot of GREAT scenes in this film, but many threads seem to go nowhere in unsettling and unsatisfying ways and the film as released keeps losing track of the Club itself, and, more importantly, Sandman...

...which is truly unfortunate, as Hines is really the star of this movie, loaded with sass, talent and charisma. None of which are shared by his pallid co-star, Richard Gere, whose miscasting nearly sinks the film. I don't much care for Gere's dull, narcissistic work here: if this character as played by Gere had wandered into a 'thirties Warners flick, he would have been gutted and left to rot on the street by Cagney or Robinson, and would have been blown off the screen by the likes of Frank McHugh or Allen Jenkins, or even by Dick Powell in his juvenile mode. Gere was part of the package before FFC came on the project; I sometimes daydream about actors that Coppola might have cast in his place. Worse, Gere has NO chemistry with Diane Lane. Which is a shame, because Cotton contains a number of terrifically conceived, tenderly and truly written love scenes between Gere and Lane that just don't come off. Lane -- in her third straight FFC film -- is really a little too young and inexperienced to play this character, but she is game. Nic Cage is all over the place as Vincent [N.B. If memory serves, Cage is the son of Coppola's brother Vincent] and is more an annoying presence than a compelling one. James Remar is just an over-the-top psycho as the Dutchman; I took two different dates to this movie, and both women suggested leaving right after Remar's tantrum at the party. We know the Dutchman is bad news; there's no point rubbing our noses in it. On the other hand, Hoskins and Gwynne are just great, and the late Julian Beck is wonderful as a particularly baleful mobster. I can't recall right now the name of the actor that plays the studio head watching Gere's screen test, but his hilarious manic intensity is a treat.

As Cotton was made in NY, we had a particular backlash against the movie because so many talented African American performers had worked in scenes and numbers that never appeared in the completed film; some were extremely vocal and extensively discussed some remarkable sounding cut sequences and musical specialty material. As so much time is wasted following Gere and his profile around, the loss of at least some of this stuff seems really regrettable. That having been said, I must admit that the almost Altmanesque notion of using the great musical stuff at the Club as a kind of live action background score and counterpoint to the narrative was a brilliant idea -- and when it works, boy, is Cotton ever a great movie. [The culmination of this idea is, of course, the dazzling, exhilarating last minutes of the film, which ties together many of the storylines in one of the screen's most daringly conceived and brilliantly realized musical sequences.] But not enough of the movie seems to take place at the Club, and it too seldom seems to be the nexus of the story. Also, there are evidently missing important musical and narrative scenes chronicling the stormy relationship of the Hines brothers, central, I think, to the film's overall conception. There is genuine emotion when the brothers forgive each other in the midst of performing their sensational "Crazy Rhythm" specialty number, but it almost comes out of nowhere; I remain surprised that this important number was omitted from the film's soundtrack album.

It's not perfect, but it is great entertainment. Best. Always, -- B.


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