The other night, my fella suggested we watch Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984).
It seemed like a great idea. After all, we have a canvas print of The Cotton Club hanging in the living room, are huge fans of Duke and Cab and everything Harlem Renaissance, and we even fit the demographic: he’s white, I’m biracial. Also, I’d fallen WAY behind in the list of movies I wanted to watch for Black History Month, so it was a win win. We snuggled up and treated ourselves to a night out in ’20s Harlem that is, to the smallest detail, faithfully rendered in Coppola’s ambitious The Cotton Club.
The film centers on the lives of a number of characters from vastly different worlds whose lives come to intersect, fatefully, at the legendary Cotton Club, where fact flirts brazenly with fiction. Richard Gere is Dixie Dwyer: a talented trumpet player (Gere, an accomplished musician, does his own solos in the film) who gets mixed up with Diane Lane: a hotsy totsy party girl with dreams of one day owning her own jazz club. Too bad for Gere that her boyfriend is the ferocious mobster Dutch Schultz. Even worse is the fact that Schultz likes him: he strong-arms Gere into being one of his tough guys. At the same time, a young black hoofer named Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) gets hired on at the famous Cotton Club with his brother as a dancing act (think The Nicholas Brothers). The Cotton Club is run by another mobster, played by the glorious Bob Hoskins, and his right-hand man (Ed Gywnn) and … if you can’t tell already, there are a lot of storylines at play here. Throw in Richard Gere’s ambitious (but dumb as nails) younger brother, played by a young Nicholas Cage, the fierce Lawrence (“Larry”, awww) Fishburne as the downright ferocious Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson (whom he’d play again in Hoodlum), and an endless parade of sexy gams and…you’ve got an operatic crime saga in the key of awesome.
There’s so dang much going on and, unfortunately, the devil is in the details, but I’ll get to that later. Because for the first 60 minutes, Coppola had us. I mean, HAD US. Gregory Hines as a Nicholas Brother-esque hoofer alone would be reason enough to watch, but no, Coppola pulls out all the stops with a glittering cast and tons of eye candy.
There are, in fact, 5 air-tight reasons to watch The Cotton Club (to be followed by 3 very good reasons not to)
Hines’ hoofer is the heart and soul of this film. The chance to watch the late, great artist dance is a treat unto itself, and the film affords plenty of chances for Hines to shine on stage. But Hines also gets the chance to act his ass off, and he brings such sincerity and honesty to his character that he end up leaving every last character in the dust. When he’s on the screen, we’re riveted. When he’s off? We’re waiting for him to come back.
THE BOB HOSKINS/FRED GWYNN BROMANCE
A close second as this film’s MVP is the always excellent, late Bob Hoskins as The Cotton Club owner. His bromance with his BFF Fred Gwynne, again, feels completely authentic. Hoskins (who did the best American gangster accent ever) is a professional mobster amidst an army of idiots: he shoots squarely and fairly and is just plain wonderful.
IT’S FUCKING SEXY
And I mean SEXY. Yes, there’s the gorgeous, scantily clad women in sequins and feathers– black and tan fantasies both erotic and innocent–dancing to the fascinating rhythm of “jungle” sound, but there’s also the city itself. Coppola creates exactly what you think of when you hear “the Cotton Club,” and “Harlem in the 20s,” — as faithfully as possible, working off archival photos– many shots framed to a “T” as they were in old photos. You can feel the eager pulse in the night air, hear high heels clicking on the slick pavement that echo through the slow hiss of New York gutter steam. Sure, it’s romanticized, but the 1920s were, even at their most excessive and bawdry, nothing if not romantic.
THE MUSIC (ok, this should be number one, but … Gregory Hines.)
If you’ve ever listened to Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy”, or any of the hot jazz from African American musicians in the late 20s, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a feeling to that kind of jazz; words fail to describe what it does to you, way down in your gut, and this film understands that fact intimately. It’s magnetic; unstoppable; unapologetic, and the music numbers in the film do an admirable job of presenting it. We also get to see a young Duke Ellington at work (so, so handsome) the energetic Cab Calloway (Larry Marshall in a show-stopping rendition of “Minnie the Moocher”) and singer Lonette McKee delivering a shattering version of “Ill Wind” (sorry for the silly edits made to this clip–what can you do, it’s YouTube, take what you can get):
GREGORY HINES “LARRY” FISHBURNE
Can you tell I’m obsessed with Gregory Hines in this movie? Anyway, Laurence Fishburne being billed as “Larry” makes my heart happy, and it’s a ton of fun to watch him play a character that would, several years later, resurrect in Bill Duke’s Hoodlum. Gonna be honest: I prefer this version of Bumpy Johnson. Also, as is the case with Nicolas Cage in this film, it’s always great to watch actors on the come. This film marks a positive turn in Fishburne’s career, who’d been primarily working in TV and smaller roles, and the same is true of Cage who’d been in only a few very minor bit parts up to now.
3 Reasons Not To
THE GODFATHER COMPLEX
The film was re-written by Francis Ford Coppola from an original adaptation by Mario Puzo. ‘Nuff said. There’s a a lot, and I mean, a lot, of The Godfather in this film. The intricate personal story arcs, the passage of time, the bleak fatality of life, and of course, the glorious bloodfeast of the gangland underbelly. But this film isn’t The Godfather and it seems that certain choices that should have been made, weren’t.
IT’S TOO DAMN LONG
Hines said that at one point the film clocked in at three hours. Even at two-and-a-half, it lingers on unnecessarily, laboring on storylines that, quite frankly, could have been, if not done away with completely, then at least cut in half.
RICHARD GERE & DIANE LANE
Sorry, but no one cares about you or your romance. Not when faced with so many other powerhouse personalities. Hines and his light-skinned lover? Hell yes. Bob Hoskins and his partner Fred Gwynne? Absolutely. Even Nicolas Cage, that stupidly ambitous upstart younger brother, is endlessly more entertaining than the force-fed romance between Trumpet Player and Gangster’s Moll. Not that I feel they do a bad job– Lane, in particular, is always good–but perhaps the reason she was awarded a Razzie for this film (that’s right, a Razzie) is because in the face of so many other, meatier stories, we simply don’t care about her or Richard Gere.
Maybe if the story had stuck primarily to the plight of the African American performers at the club and their struggles as black performers in a white club, with the relationship between Gere and Lane as a sub-story (instead of the other way around) it might have resulted a film that wasn’t just good (and it is good) but great.
Even so, with that said, they’re still definitely, shall we say, watchable together:
The Cotton Club is wonderfully entertaining. Fans of jazz and all things vintage will revel in each gloriously gilded frame. Will I watch it again? Sure. Only this time with the fast-forward button ready.
Another reason NOT to: My grandfather, Cab Calloway, did NOT like the film protesting, “it’s not accurate, it was not like that at the Cotton Club!” Granddad was hired as a supervising consultant on the film, but did not agree with Coppola’s burning desire to turn it into his gangster film. After numerous disagreements – Cab was fired by Coppola.