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THE COTTON CLUB

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 13, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: I liked it but Francis Ford Coppola’s troubled production of ‘The Cotton Club’ proved to be a box-office flop (my review’s predictions notwithstanding). Still, there are apparently enough fans for Lionsgate to give the 35-year-old film a Blu-ray boost. My review was published on Dec. 14, 1984.

“Dune” and “The Cotton Club” opening the same day is like having a contest to see which over-hyped, obscenely expensive movie is going to have the best reception.

“Dune” may open strong due to the curiosity factor but “The Cotton Club” will be around much longer thanks to a uniquely successful blend of seemingly incompatible elements that have been brilliantly tied together.

“The Godfather” meets “Footlight Parade,” if you will.

“The Cotton Club” is directed and co-written by Francis Coppola (who seems to have permanently dropped the middle-name Ford) and it’s his best film in years. Though it deals with gangsters in the late ’20s and early ’30s, this is very different from his “Godfather” films, and, despite a number of flaws (including the year’s most trite ending), “The Cotton Club” has an energy and vibrance that come along all too rarely in movies these days.

The film concentrates mainly on two parallel stories, that of a white cornet player who innocently becomes involved with the underworld and a black dancer who performs at the mob-owned Cotton Club, an all-black nightclub for a white-only audience. Their stories occasionally interconnect but generally stay on their separate roads — and that alone gives this a more realistic stance than most films that would feel the need to have the two characters become buddies.

     

Gregory Hines, left, Lonette McKee, Diane Lane, Richard Gere, 'The Cotton Club' (1984)

Yet, despite striving for realism (and the R-rated violence is particularly harsh in a couple of scenes), “The Cotton Club” occasionally opts for a fuzzy, fantasy tone in certain bits of dialogue and characterization. That’s a minor point until the climax, when there is a rather jarring Busby Berkely happy ending that looks like it came right out of left field — or perhaps Steve Martin’s “Pennies from Heaven.” It’s just too pat and silly, compared to everything that’s gone before.

Despite that, “The Cotton Club” is a delightful revelation with absolutely on-target performances from the entire cast — and a few knockouts in the bargain.

The story has Richard Gere as Dixie Dwyer, a young cornet player (and Gere actually plays his own cornet solos here) who innocently saves the life of psychotic mobster Dutch Schultz (James Remar) and finds himself rather too much in Schultz’s debt thereafter. Diane Lane plays Vera Cicero, a young girl who wants her own nightclub, and who carries on an adulterous relationship with Schultz to get it. Eventually, Dwyer breaks free of Schultz long enough to go to Hollywood and become a movie star — playing gangsters, of course.

The other story has Gregory Hines as Sandman Williams, a young dancer who works his way up in the Cotton Club, eventually achieving stardom there. He loves Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee), a singer/dancer at the club, and she goes on to achieve her own stardom, passing for white in Cicero’s club.

Gere is top draw here, of course, and he’s very good playing a much more low-key character than usual. He’s likable and charming, and mixes just the right amount of innocence, apprehension and fear in his musician-on-the-way-up, but not necessarily the way he’d like to go. Lane is also good, as a street-smart young kid who gets in too deep, then simply resigns herself to it.

     

Remar, who may be remembered as the vicious villain of “48 HRS.,” is brilliant as Dutch Schultz, a mad dog if ever there was one, and he’s a most threatening, frightening presence on the screen. Bob Hoskins as the owner of the Cotton Club, Fred Gwynne as his hulking cohort and Nicolas Cage as Dwyer’s brother, who also becomes a crazy mobster, are all excellent.

In the parallel story, Hines dominates the screen as a brash, aggressive talent determined to win both stardom and Lila Rose. His performance is flawless and his dancing duets with his real-life brother Maurice are exquisite (one of them, which patches up a feud, is especially moving). Lonette McKee as Lila Rose is terrific, a woman refusing to be intimidated by her own choices, and she and Hines sizzle together.

Also worth noting are Julian Beck as a menacing hit man, whose ironic deadpan humor is delightful, and Tom Waits as the Cotton Club’s gravel-voiced MC.

The editing of all this material, jumping back and forth as it does, could have made a real mess of the entire project, but instead it is brilliant, and everything fits together very well. Coppola’s direction is quite stylish, and the lighting, sets, costumes and cinematography are all excellent. As is the music, of course, depicting the golden age of jazz.

The script is also quite good, written in an E.L. Doctorow style (“Ragtime,” “Daniel”), fusing fiction and history.

Aside from a few slips here and there (including that ending), my only real complaint about “The Cotton Club” is that it has a scene or two that are just too gory for my taste. Especially one early on, though it achieves the shock value sought. For that reason it is rated R, and there are a few profanities, along with some discreet sex and partial nudity.