Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club didn't get a fair shake when it was new, but corrections have been made... 35 years later. This year's The Cotton Club Encore is an exception to the rule that filmmakers revising their own movies is a bad idea. Back in 1984, the positive reviews were not enthusiastic, and the negative reviews wanted us to believe that Coppola had surrendered his crown as America's most creative, commercial director. Was there some kind of Hollywood backlash against Francis Coppola?
Perhaps Apocalypse Now was a hard act to follow, both creatively and financially. Francis took on more commercial projects, and simply applied the stylishness he thought they needed. Robert Evans was behind The Cotton Club, a gangster/musical hybrid that was never going to be as historically realistic as The Godfather movies; half of its content is seen through a filter of movieland glitter and musical nostalgia. The real value in the show is its celebration of black talent of the time in both music and dance.
Francis Coppola's re-edit of The Cotton Club rebalances a storyline that the moneymen wanted trimmed back in 1984. Some material has been taken out but several impressive scenes, mostly musical in content, have been restored.
Coppola made changes to William Kennedy's screenplay, which tells parallel stories in gangland New York of 1928. Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) is a pianist and cornet player in a 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 an errand boy and private entertainer for mob boss Dutch Schultz (James Remar), a power-mad, grimacing killer. Dixie's crook brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) uses Dixie's new connection to go to work for Schultz as an enforcer. 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 set her up in her own nightclub. 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.
Meanwhile, the dynamite dancing team of Sandman and Clay Williams (Gregory and Maurice Hines) has just been hired at the Cotton Club, where all the performers are black but the clientele is restricted to whites. Sandman is so crazy about singer Lea Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee) that he pursues her at the expense of his partnership. He also antagonizes the club bouncers, that treat the performers like troublesome animals. Sandman and Clay become estranged, a state of affairs that both Dixie and the other Cotton Club performers consider a tragedy. Even the local Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne) wants the brothers back together again.
The Cotton Club is jammed with interesting actors playing roles based on real personalities of the late '20s. From what I saw, some of the cameo appearances have been minimized, but we see recreations of Duke Ellington 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). When Diane Lane's Vera Cicero gets herself a nightclub, she uses the line, 'Hello Suckers!' as her trademark, making her a transposition of 'Texas' Guinan, a real nightclub personality 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. John David Chandler played a less-pleasant Mad Dog Coll way back in 1961. Laurence Fishburne plays the real Bumpy Johnson (as Bumpy Rhodes), the Harlem gangster resisting Schultz's attempted takeover: Fishburne would repeat the role in an 1997 film called Hoodlum. The Encore version gives us a glimpse of dancers recreating the famed Nicholas Brothers, too.
The film's musical cast is matched by a terrific set of gangland faces. Old timer Fred Gwynne, a great actor who never got out from under his Munsters curse, has the best scene in the movie with then- relative newcomer Bob Hoskins. Allen Garfield, Tom Waits, Julian Beck 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. I believe that the extended 'encore' cut also restores more scenes with Woody Strode, as the Cotton Club doorman. And this time around, I found out that a waif shot down on the street by 'Mad Dog Dwyer's' men was played by Sofia Coppola.
The Cotton Club is purposely retro, a Hollywood concoction more elaborate than anything Hollywood ever made. It's a showy, old-fashioned epic that interweaves its gangster content with musical material from the Club's dance floor. Although Coppola never jumps the line into free-form showoff stylization, as with his later Tucker, he shows he's going in that direction with his kaleidoscopic ending.
The Cotton Club uses editorial cross-cutting for one gangland killing, comparing a machine gun to tapping feet. This Encore version retains the finale that pushes the intercutting trick one step further into Busby Berkeley territory. The last dance number is a part-fantasy that happens simultaneously on stage and in the middle of Grand Central Station. It may not be progressive cinema, but it's both emotionally affecting and clear storytelling. The new re-edit likely rearranges more material than I notice; the only thing missing, I believe, were more elaborate introductions of movie personalities visiting the Cotton Club.
Is this a case of genre pleasures negating reviewer judgment? I never minded the gangster storylines that the critics thought were dumb. The old-fashioned visuals are still entertaining, with faces like Bob Hoskins, Allen Garfield and Julian Beck in play. Richard Gere was fairly inexpressive at this point in his career, but it fits the basically shallow, likable Dixie Dwyer. Diane Lane captures well the glamour of a wild girl of the era, with a nice period sense of sexiness. And I always thought that James Remar was terrific as Dutch Schultz, a genuinely psychotic menace.
As promised, the 'too much black stuff' mandate from 1984 has been corrected. The big benefit is the restoration of the full Gregory and Maurice Hines subplot, which brings back three entire musical numbers and extends others. The biggest boost goes to Lonette McKee, who now sings 'Stormy Weather' in full. A performer named Jackée Harry shines in a hilarious comedy number. The movie is now a showcase for black talent, and the stylish music tastes of an earlier era. I enjoyed The Cotton Club immensely when it was new, and like it just as much now.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray + DVD + Digital of The Cotton Club Encore is quite a beauty. After the depredations of George Lucas and (to a lesser degree) Steven Spielberg, a top director from the film school era has revised a movie the right way. The image looks fine except in a couple of the restored musical numbers -- one tap dance looks as if it had to be sourced from a grainy print. As ever, the music score and the many pop standards are delightfully arranged and orchestrated.
The director talks about Encore including a half-hour of new material. Since the new cut is only twenty minutes longer, either Coppola is cheating a bit, or he did indeed take out more footage that I didn't miss.
The extras are few but effective. The dramatically slimmed-down Francis Ford Coppola taped a new introduction for the show, explaining some of the politics behind it -- in his version of events, Robert Evans brought him on to advise for a while, and he eventually just took over. He doesn't repeat the (faulty?) word on the street that he took on the job to get out from under some of the crippling debt he'd incurred on Apocalypse, five years earlier.
A Q&A video recorded after the premiere (?) of The Cotton Club Encore is more rewarding than most. James Remar and Maurice Hines accompany Coppola to the stage but Francis does most of the talking. He's mellow, pleasant and very happy to have been able to restore his picture -- which of course has a positive PC angle, 'correcting' a racially-based problem of the past. Even for Coppola, it must have been difficult to cut through the legal and financial red tape to allow this to happen.
The Cotton Club Encore
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson