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The Cotton Club was a famous night club in Harlem. The story follows the people that visited the club, those that ran it, and is peppered with the Jazz music that made it so famous. Written by
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Even Francis Ford Coppola couldn't sustain the height of movie-making he achieved in the 1970s. Raised too high by initial expectations, then dismissed too brusquely when the critics got to see it, "The Cotton Club" exists in a kind of neutral zone, a grand spectacle undone by sloppy scriptwriting and unappealing characters that nevertheless shows the master with some juice still in his cup.
It's the story of Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), a cornet player who one evening in 1928 almost accidentally saves the life of notorious mob boss Dutch Schultz (James Remar). Dutch, already a fan of his music, is appreciative of the extra service and brings Dwyer into his circle, which brings him into contact with Dutch's girl Vera (Diane Lane).
"If I didn't like you, you'd be dead," is Dutch's way of expressing friendship.
"It's nice to be liked," Dixie replies.
The film is centered around the nightclub of the title, a fashionable Harlem nightspot where blacks are welcome only on stage, entertaining the white customers. Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) runs things with an eye for keeping order, especially where the volatile Dutchman is concerned. Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) just wants to dance into the arms of Lila Rose (Lonette McKee), who is torn between the chance for true love versus the chance to pass for white in a white man's world.
The stacked cast even includes Nicolas Cage as Dixie's mad-dog gangster brother and Laurence Fishburne in one of his first signature tough-guy roles. "The white man has left me nothing but the underworld, and that is where I dance," he tells Sandman. "Where do you dance?" All this crammed into just over two hours leaves very little room to breathe, for a director who mastered movies which do exactly that. But with little useful dialogue except of the expository kind, characters coming and going all the time, left-field plot twists (Dixie goes to Hollywood and becomes an instant star), and a central romance between Gere and Lane that is long on open-mouth kissing but short on story, you need spectacle to keep your attention.
Remar makes the film worthwhile for me. His bug-eyed tantrums as Dutch are what stay with me when the film is over, yet he shows range, too, shy with Vera, henpecked with his wife, and amiable with Dixie in his guarded way. It's hard not to worry what will happen when he learns about Dixie and Vera, not only for the lovebirds but for Dutch, too. I only wish Remar could have played Dutch in the latter film set in the same milieu, "Billy Bathgate"; Dustin Hoffman is a great actor but was wrong for that part. Remar here fits into it like a cement overshoe.
The film also boasts great music, including singing from McKee and tapping from Hines and his brother Maurice that raise the roof and recall the famous baptism scene in Coppola's first "Godfather". Larry Marshall does a great Cab Calloway, conked locks whipping across his forehead.
Nothing is really wrong with "Cotton Club". But what's right doesn't stay right for long, and the rest doesn't hold together. It's a fun show, so long as you don't mind being a bit confused when the curtain comes down.
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