Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling musical/crime drama concerns the legendary Harlem jazz club from the 1930s. Plagued by production problems it wound up one of the costliest box-office failures of the Eighties, but the fascinating subject matter coupled with Coppola’s bravura cinematic gifts make this compelling nonetheless.
The far-reaching story, co-written by Coppola and William Kennedy (author of Billy Bathgate (1991)), begins with cornet-player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) as he unwittingly saves the live of psychotic gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar). Schultz tags him to chaperone his teenage moll Vera Cicero (Diane Lane), with whom Dixie falls in love and has a secret affair amidst the Cotton Club, where black performers like tap-dancing brothers Sandman (Gregory Hines) and Clay Williams (Maurice Hines) entertain rich, white patrons who won’t let them sit in the audience. Sandman falls in love with Lila Rose (Lonette McKee), a fair-skinned dancer who leads a double-life in white society. Meanwhile, club owners and big shot mobsters, Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) and Frenchy Demange (Fred Gwynne) are losing patience with Dixie’s trigger-happy brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) as well as Dutch, who as years roll by grows increasingly out of control.
Some movies are all flash and no plot. The Cotton Club has plenty of flash and is wildly overstuffed with plot strands that zigzag this way and that without making much of an impression. There is meaty stuff here: the idea of the Cotton Club as a place where high life and low lives intermingle and as a mirror for race relations in Thirties America; the slow legitimizing of gangsters into mainstream society via show-business (with Dixie Dwyer finding movie fame as a kind of George Raft type); the fusion of black and white popular music that led to George Gershwin, Cole Porter, etc.
Coppola stages some marvellous musical set-pieces where performers like Hines, McKee and even Gere (who did his own cornet playing) show off their stuff, and he mimics the whiz-bang visual style of the 1930s musical quite beautifully. An awful lot happens - love stories, brothers betray brothers, people are murdered, find success, or lose it - but we’re never involved long enough to care. The film becomes a celebration rather than an examination of a fascinating period in history, dishing up plenty of razzle-dazzle but precious little food for thought.
Part of the problem lies with near-legendary troubles behind the scenes. The film was meant to mark the directorial debut and comeback of playboy producer Robert Evans, the man behind (or rather given too much credit for) the so-called golden age of Seventies filmmaking. Inspired by Jim Haskin’s picture-book history of the famous nightclub, Evans hired production designer Richard Sylbert (doing outstanding work) and screenwriter Mario Puzo (later dropped), but was struggling to create a story when he finally brought on Coppola as a hired-hand. This proved his downfall as Coppola, still bearing a hefty grudge over Evans’ interference in The Godfather (1972), seized control and proceeded to wildly overspend on rehearsals, re-shoots and costly (though often dazzling) improvisations. Nearly thirty different screenplays were written and Gregory Hines once remarked that a three hour movie was filmed during rehearsals alone. The Cotton Club was the first major movie to be privately financed and Las Vegas tycoons Fred and Ed Doumani took a hefty wallop in their wallets when it struggled to recoup even half its $50 million dollar budget. Things turned nasty when a trail of lawsuits revealed Arabic arms dealer Adan Khashoggi as a co-financier, along with vaudeville promoter Roy Radin, who was subsequently murdered.
Coppola’s favoured filmmaking method is to create chaotic brilliance on the set from which he will draw ordered brilliance in the editing room. That worked on The Godfather (1972), where he had a rock solid plot to draw from, but flounders here. However, Coppola always had the ability to draw strong performances to counterbalance his visual flamboyance, so alongside the eye-catching dance numbers there are some great turns from Hines, a young Nicholas Cage, spooky Julian Beck (later in Poltergeist II (1986)), and especially Diane Lane - remarkably assured considering how young she was. In an extraordinary cast that encompasses Dirty Dancing (1987) star Jennifer Grey as Vincent’s wife, Laurence Fishburne as gangster who flits confusingly in and out of the narrative, Joe Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano, Sofia Coppola in a bit-part as a street kid, and Broadway legend Gwen Verdon as Dixie’s mother, the most memorable moments arrive courtesy of Bob Hoskins and the artist formerly known as Herman Munster, Fred Gwynne. Keep an eye on those two, they steal the show. Music by John Barry, although it’s the vintage jazz numbers that stand out.