The Cotton Club
Review by DVD Savant | posted July 13, 2001
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

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 exposť 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

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