The Cotton Club (1984)
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Throughout the film, various gangsters and bootleggers interact, sometimes violently, but much of the action centers around the Cotton Club, an establishment owned in real-life by Owney Madden, played in the film by actor Bob Hoskins. Madden would bring in Black performers to entertain a Whites-only clientèle, a truly racist policy, and a major plot point in the film's story.
The film's plot is somewhat muddled, the result of a less than stellar screenplay. And, as you would expect, the gangster characters are not terribly likable. But the film overcomes these script weaknesses with a captivating visual and musical style that is both tawdry and elegant. The corruption, the violence, and the implied sleaze are garish and tawdry to be sure. Yet, the Club's ambiance gushes with a certain elegance and glamour. It's a strange mix, but one that is entirely consistent with that era in U.S. history.
The film gets points from me for its lush, period piece costumes and production design, and adroit lighting, as well as all those jazz numbers, both sultry and flashy. Gregory Hines together with brother Maurice Hines provide some snappy tap dancing, some of which is improvised. Interestingly, their grandmother really did perform at the Cotton Club during its heyday. Also of interest in the film, viewers get to watch towering Fred Gwynne, who plays Frenchy, the oh-so-serious assistant to Owney Madden; the two of them engage in some interesting dialogue.
Although the script's story and characters are less than ideal, I enjoyed the film a lot, mostly as a result of the tawdry and elegant visual style combined with the lavish jazz numbers. If you're interested in gangster movies or the Prohibition era of American history, this film is a must-see.
The film's major storyline concerns Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), a comparatively ordinary jazz musician who unexpectedly finds himself associating with organised crime boss "Dutch" Schultz (James Remar). Dixie is interesting because, unlike your typical hero consumed by the allure of amoral riches, he always remains peripheral to the world of gangsters; he observes, with disapproval, its dishonesty and depravity, but rarely finds himself a part of it. In fact, the closest he ever comes to being a gangster is in Hollywood, where he shares the sort of film roles that made James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson famous. Coppola might have been offering a commentary on the inherently romanticised version of reality offered by the movies, but his "real world" of gangsters is scarcely less stylised. The seedy underbelly of organised crime is paradoxically depicted as taking place in the classiest locales in Harlem, where the crime bosses consume the best alcohol and mix with Hollywood's elite talent (Chaplin, Swanson and Cagney among the featured patrons).
Proving further that Coppola wasn't attempting to replicate his Corleone saga, 'The Cotton Club' also features a rather extraneous subplot with Maurice and Gregory Hines as African-American tap-dancers vying for the "big-time" at the Cotton Club, where (in a bizarre discriminatory switch) only black performers are hired. The regular cross-cutting between this story and Dixie Dwyer's doesn't quite work, and, in any case, the taut romance between Dwyer and tough-girl Vera (an absolutely gorgeous Diane Lane) is much more involving than that between Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) and mixed-race dancer Lila (Lonette McKee). Among the film's impressive supporting performers are Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as crime associates, Nicholas Cage as an overly-ambitious young thug, Laurence Fishburne as black crime boss Bumpy Rhodes, and James Remar, playing a sleazier and less identifiable version of Dutch Schultz to Dustin Hoffman in 'Billy Bathgate (1991).' The premiere gangster film of 1984 was Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in America (1984),' but, despite being runner-up, nobody can accuse Coppola of playing it safe.
There are rumours the film may be re-released with scenes and music that were cut from the original version. If this is true, would the film finally become a hit? After all, Robert Evans, the film's producer, apparently told one reporter..."How can it miss? It's got gangsters, music and girls." Well said, Robert.
The acting is incredible, and highlights the subtle twists in the plot beautifully. The cinematography is done in a most expert fashion. Richard Gere and Gregory Hines are absolutely charming, and Diane Lane is perfect is Vera Cicero. Lonette McKee has one of the most beautiful voices you will ever hear, it is no wonder she received a Tony award. Any viewer will be surprised by the guest appearances including Nicholas Cage, Bob Hoskins, Lawrence Fishburne, and on-screen and real-life brother of Gregory, Maurice Hines. Not only one of Coppola's best, but one of the best of all time.
I will start with movie #1... The Cotton club, the nightclub where everything converges and what is the common denominator that brings ALL of the characters together. It is almost set up like a Plantation in Mississippi. The white gangster own the place and the black people work there and have no say about anything that goes on. Black people were not even able to go to the club as a customer. All of the women who worked there were light skin almost passing for white. In the movie they do show how the set up was but the place was no as large as it was in the movie and on a side bar. Larry Fishburn who plays a numbers runner (the same role he played in a later movie, Hoodlum) shows interest in a brown skin singer performer in the club and her mother is very upset because she is the first "dark skin" woman working at the club. I liked that they added that in. I know this because my neighbor use to play with Louis Armstrong that the women in question is in fact Louis Amstrongs future wife. A little tidbit. I like the music and the performances which took place in the club. To me this was the most enjoying part of the movie. I feel a movie just about the Club without all the other foolishness it would be very interesting in the right hands. Which brings me to movie 2
THe gangsters or the white people. Owey Madden was a thug and a very nasty man. In this movie Bob Hoskin (who was very good) and Fred Gwynn who I loved played like they were Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. In the right hands we would of seen the real Madden. Remember this is the man who kept black people out of his club. And did battle with other NY gangsters. Then we have Dutch Schultz. I wonder why we did not see more of Lucky Luciano because it was those 2 who were causing havoc in NYC during the 20's with Luciano winning. I think James Remer did the best portrayal of Schulz. Years later Tim Roth played him in the movie Hoodlum and he was good, but Remer was scarier. And according to all reports he was a psychopath. Then we have the George Raft(Dixie Dwyer) character played by Richard Gere If people are not familiar with the actor George Raft it was known he hung around the mob and had big time mob connections..who actually got him a job in movies. Richard Gere even mentions at one time that he use to be a dancer. I am sure that is reference and acknowledgment of George Raft, who was a dancer before he went to Hollywood. George Raft was actually a pretty good actor. Gere even looks like him. I feel that is the real reason they cast him in this movie. Look at this movie as Gere playing Raft and not playing Dixie Dwyer and the part works.
The last movie is the Harlem story. The Larry Fishburne character was a real person. He was lifetime criminal who spent most of his life in jail. He was not the voice of righteousness we see in the movie or the movie Hoodlum. What was interesting was the scene when he and the woman who was running the numbers racket in Harlem were offered a deal. I like they put that in the movie, that was true. The woman who was the real boss of the numbers racket came from the West Indies and started the whole thing on her own. A very tough cookie who went to jail because she would not give in to the mob. The mob was politically connected and they put her in jail for a long time. I like the the Hines bothers in the movie. They were feuding in real life and this movie was a way they starting talking again. They actually showed that in the movie. ALso the Vonnetta McGee character was interesting. I am a very light skin black women who could pas for white. WhICH I WOULD NEVER DO. But I don't know about living back in the early part of the century. The scene when she and Sandman goes to the hotel and the clerk tries to deny them a room actually happened to me and a boyfriend of mine years ago. So that scene really hit me. I would of liked if they explored Harlem life more, but the movie had too much going on already.
Nicholas Cage...nephew of Cappolla was good playing the violent brother of the Richard Gere character. I would like to have seen him in more parts like that instead of the garbage he has been wasting himself in the last few years. Diane Lane was the miscast. She was playing a real character too, but she came nowhere near the woman she was playing, Texas Guinon(I think that was her last name) A big boozy tough blonde. To me that is the major miscast of the movie. I like her though, but not in this movie. This is a movie I feel has to be seen around 5 times to get the whole feeling of it. A good movie but just too messy and too much.
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.
But the legacy of this film is very strange: The behind the scenes shenanigans is legendary, it was unjustly panned when it was first released, and box-office was slight; however, watching this film you can't help but wonder why?
Everything from the performances to the look of the film is first-rate; with James Remar particularly good as Dutch Schultz, and the ending of this film is nicely reminiscent of THE GODFATHER.
So if your looking for what might be considered a buried Coppola classic, check out THE COTTON CLUB.
Acting-wise, Coppola goes for the big ensemble once again (a trademark of his films in the 80s), with the key ones allowing for the director to put a lot into each smaller group. The stars as the drenched-in-formula good looking' musician-cum-actor (Richard Gere) and the girl on the side for one of the big mob bosses in New York City (Diane Lane). the gangsters, all with specific characteristics that gain momentum as the story goes, like Dutch Schultz (James Remar) as the possessive paranoid killer, Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne (what a combo) as certain 'business interests' entwined with the rest of the mob, and Nicolas Cage as Gere's younger brother, a hot-head racist who wants to take over; the black actors, singers, dancers, all right out of Harlem and with its own stars (Gregory Hines, in one of his very best performances/roles), and criminals (Fishburne as a key part of this group). And the club itself is something of a character- as principle location- unto itself, as some surreal bastion of escapist glee (if your part of the audience) and gangland violence and bad race vibes (if not). Coppola also has the occasional side character, like the MC at the club played by Tom Waits (made believable all by a cigar), to not make either side too top-heavy.
Whether one side bests the other or not is arguable. It's hard to say that there aren't some noteworthy scenes in practically every turn, even if they tend to go over-the-top (like Remar with Schultz) or almost too much on young charisma (Lane and sometimes Gere). It's a credit to Coppola, at least on that front, that he corrals moments- like the break-up/reuniting with Sandman and Clay Williams, or between the two main stars when they're literally between white sheets backstage at the club- that add up to a lot in the grand scheme of things. His other main concerns, however, are music and the subtle presence of the camera. There's rarely a dull moment with the former, as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway are presented, if only for fans, as legends unto themselves that even get fleeting glances on screen (the Calloway number "Minnie the Moocher" is a hight-light). And Coppola's tie-in with Stephen Goldblatt and his editors is crucial, albeit using each to their fullest extent depending on the mood. The film moves pretty fast, narratively quicker than the Godfather films, but he only uses montage for pivotal cross-cutting moments, showing the rise and fall of the gangsters with that of the club gaining prestige (the fall, in the big climax, is as magnificent as it can get in cinema), and the technical prowess is skillful and inventive.
And all the same, it shouldn't all work entirely, because so much feels like it's about to explode at any moment, and nearly to a point where it edges on the point of being the same thing that Coppola is striving to homage (shallow, escapist sensationalism). There's parallels between the struggles of musicians, criminals, and the others on the sidelines in show-business, and are exploited quite well. All the same it ends up not exactly a 'great' movie, because the underlying ideas for something much deeper only work up to a point. Still, after a first viewing, and like with most other films from the director (and, damned if I say it, the producer too), I wouldn't pass it up again on a viewing late at night; it's one of the more shamelessly entertaining pictures of the mid 80s.
Schultz, played by James Remar, is extremely coarse and profane. There are tons of Lord's name in vain abuses in this movie, many by Remar and Richard Gere. There is very hard edge to this film, sometimes a little too hard, I think.
The positives are the cinematography, music, dancing and a good romance angle featuring the white leads, Gere and Diane Lane, and the black leads Gregory Hines and Lonette McKee. Gere and Hines are buddies, with Gere playing coronet and Hines tap dancing. Hines is a tremendous dancer and great to watch.
You also have other "name" actors in here, such as Nicholas Cage, Bob Hoskins, Fred Gwynne, Laurence Fishburne and Allen Garfield. If the language I mentioned earlier doesn't offend you, this is a great movie.
Set in Harlem in the late 1920s, we are introduced to a group of Jazz Age-products, people who see themselves exactly as they are but all hope to go somewhere better. Two story lines occupy the plot; we get a good-looking young musician Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) who gets involved in the mob after falling for one of the gangster's girlfriends (Diane Lane) and we get the story of a very talented black dancer (Gregory Hines) trying to prove his love to a half-black and half-white chorus girl who seems to struggle with her place in this more or less racist society. Almost every night, everyone gathers at The Cotton Club, one of the most famous clubs in the city and the blacks entertain while the whites drink and watch. But Coppola gives us a view from all angles so it doesn't feel as if we are missing anything important.
One of the biggest achievements of this film is its staging of the dance sequences, which are to say the least quite exquisite. Filled with colorful costumes and some mind-boggling tap numbers, at times you may forget that this is also a gangster picture. Indeed, some scenes feel just like Coppola's The Godfather with its quick bursts of violence but also in its tone of sad, elegiac setting. People come and go and some regret the things they do, but the music lives on. The acting is also very strong as Gere and Lane are quite wonderful in their first of three films together. Both were very good-looking and they do bring out the best in each other. Two supporting actors that really do steal the show are Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as a mob boss and his head bodyguard. They share a tenacity and ferociousness in their dealings, but also have one really terrific scene involving Gwynne coming to see Hoskins after being kidnapped. A young Nicolas Cage also shows here he had incredible potential.
This Broadway version of the gangster film so familiar in Hollywood refreshes both genres as we see the similarities between the two. Indeed, many of the participators in the entertainment were also involved in the mob and Coppola shows how the two lives intertwine and bring a lot of trouble to everyone. This may seem as a strange mixing of genres and story lines for some people, but it is well worth the two hours. It is funny, sad, violent, poetic but also enormously entertaining and isn't that what the movies are all about? Coppola seems to think so.
The Cotton Club exemplifies this point - lots of atmosphere, an abundance of acting and musical talent, and a little history for those too young to appreciate the Harlem Renaissance or prohibition-era segregation in the big city. But what little story there is, lacks coherency and is hard to follow.
We get to see some dead-on re-enactments of young Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, and the Duke Ellington Band at their primes in pristine high fidelity, and fine performances from the late Gregory Hines and Fred Gwynne, but there just isn't enough story to connect the dots.
If you're going to watch The Cotton Club, watch it for the musical numbers and don't set your expectations too high for anything more.
Or, better yet, just skip the DVD and just get the STUNNING soundtrack on CD.
Gwynne, in particular, is impressive. Early on, he stands by quietly as Hoskins runs a gangster's peace meeting. Hoskins warns the participants to cool off or "you'll have to deal with me!" And Gwynne very quietly adds, "And me."... and the audience I saw it with went, "Whooaaa...!" The man conveyed incredible menace with two soft words. It wasn't until nearly half-way through the movie that some half-wit in the audience yelled out, "Hey. That's Herman Munster!"
Gwynne and Hoskins play their gangsters as funny, pragmatic and highly lethal men. They are far better than anything that surrounds them in this movie.
What I really admire is the fact that it deals with racial and ethnic friction honestly. The racial slurs in the dialog were part of the reality of that time. Relations between blacks and whites are not idealized. Richard Gere and Gregory Hines are neighbors and acquaintances, but are not portrayed as close friends. When Gregory Hines prevents Dutch Schultz (James Remar in a vivid characterization) from killing Richard Gere, he does it out of basic decency. Mercifully, there are none of the sentimental relationships between blacks and whites that seem so patently false in other films.
Gangland New York during the prohibition era has rarely been portrayed accurately. A worst case example was a 1991 disaster called Mobsters (a.k.a. "Young Tommy Guns"). The Cotton Club deals with real life chracters like Owney Madden (has he ever been portrayed in another film under his real name?), Big Frenchy DeMange, Arthur "Dutch Schultz" Flegenheimer, a Vincent Coll standin, Charlie ""Lucky" Luciano, "Trigger" Mike Coppola, and (at least in an early shooting script) Jack "Legs" Diamond. Richard Gere's character was loosely based on George Raft.
They were fascinating characters. At times, The Cotton Club tries to play fair with them. It almost succeeds.
On the whole, this should have been a better film. Personally, I would have preferred a film that focused on the real life gangsters with the music simply as background. The attempt to elevate the black characters to a position of equal importance in the narrative is the flaw that undoes the film. It's difficult to follow characters who have no power and little chance of gaining it. Obviously, that is not politically correct. However, I prefer for historical films to deal with life the way it really was, rather than the way some people think that it should have been.
All in all, an interesting and honorable failure.
The scenes inside the club are really exciting, though. You never want to leave. Gregory Hines' dancing is the kind you could watch for hours. But the best scene in "Cotton Club" is when the gorgeous Lonette McKee takes the stage to sing a stunning version of "Ill Wind." She is as beautiful as young Lena Horne, a feast for the eyes and ears. The director was wise not to place this number too early in the film because the movie never recovers afterward. Not that there was a lot to recover.
Nick Cage is in there somewhere, so is Laurence Fishburne. Joe Dallisandro makes a cameo at the end as a gangster. All he does is sit there, but he was still handsome then and eye-candy was just about all the white leads offer in "Cotton Club."
One of these days a director is going to make a movie about the New York City of the twenties or early thirties that will have vitality and wit, peopled with the legendary theatrical characters of that era (Tallulah, Robert Benchley, the Barrymores for example). Not like the one from Alan Rudolph about Dorothy Parker; Jennifer Jason Leigh and Campbell Scott tried hard to save that one but the director was all over the place as usual doing his poor Robert Altman impression.