Saturday, July 31, 2010

Academy of the Underrated: The Cotton Club

Cotton Club DVD cover and Amazon link

Francis Ford Coppola’s THE COTTON CLUB is an interesting case study in how bad reputations can dog a film before it even comes out. It was, at the time, a catastrophe, a $50 million or so epic emerging from a tangle of funding and production troubles only to get dumped by the studio. Coppola’s career, already in trouble, did not benefit, and I actually first heard about this movie from a rerun of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and a surreal sketch featuring a conversation between two women, one distressed by Coppola’s financial troubles and who spoke with a French accent for some reason. (It was the Ebersol years. They had troubles of their own.) But after twenty-five some years, pretty much all of this has faded into the background.

What’s left is a damn fun movie. THE COTTON CLUB is a spry, colorful affair in a grand old Hollywood tradition, albeit one I can’t quite narrow down. Set in the 1920s at the height of Prohibition, it’s a gangland spectacle that deals with race, family, and romance, while also providing us some great song and dance numbers and incredible visuals. It deserves a lot better than its current obscurity, and that’s why we’re here.

The Cotton Club was a legendary nightclub which featured a number of top black musicians and dancers- but was, like so many upscale clubs, whites-only. The film follows two stories to reflect a segregated society. Richard Gere is Dixie Dwyer, a coronet player who saves the life of mobster Dutch Schultz (James Remar) and is rewarded with entry to his inner circle, which is wrapped up with the gangsters who run the club. Gregory Hines is “Sandman” Williams, who with his brother Clay (Maurice Hines) does a mean tapdancing act which gets them booked at the Cotton Club. They may not like the fact that there are no blacks allowed in the audience, but it’s the best gig in town short of Broadway. Dixie falls into an affair with Dutch’s moll Vera (Diane Lane), while his brother Vincent (Nicholas Cage) gets involved in Dutch’s numbers racket. Sandman starts courting a beautiful mulatto singer named Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee), and has a falling out with his brother. The two stories don’t intersect very much, but as the years go by there’s plenty of violence, heartbreak, and joy to go around.

Now, going into a notoriously expensive, lengthy picture about the Prohibition era from the director of the Godfather saga, you would naturally expect a stately, dignified epic. But here, Coppola’s aiming for something different; instead of doing a thoroughly modern take on the material, he draws on the atmosphere of and nostalgia for the Jazz age, repeating some classic gangster and showbiz movie tropes, while the script examines them from a modern perspective. The result is that the picture rarely drags; there’s always something to grab our attention, whether it’s funny or grim, and if a certain narrative unity is sacrificed, it’s on the altar of pure entertainment.

The film’s treatment of the racial issues its subject matter evokes benefits from its light touch. It’s not a problem picture, and the black characters we see are not helpless victims of the system. However, race keeps popping up. Dutch, a Jew, is incensed by the mocking of an Irish gangster and stabs him at a party meant to force a reconciliation; Vincent shows some careless entrepeneurship in trying to bring his numbers racket into black neighborhoods, which stirs up the resistance of the black organized crime community (most notably Lawrence Fishburne, instantly memorable as gangster Bumpy Rhodes, based on Bumpy Johnson.) Lila is light-skinned enough that she feels she can try to pass for white, but doesn’t want to leave the black community behind, to say nothing of Sandman. Just working at the Club is in and of itself a moral dilemma, especially given Lilia, Sandman, and others’ run-ins with a racist stage manager.

Richard Gere (who does his own coronet playing) and Diane Lane make a good onscreen couple- the central romance in movies like these is always a potential pitfall because it risks feeling obligatory, but here at least there’s genuine chemistry. Hines, however, dances away with much of the picture, performing some incredible tap routines (one of which was improvised during a delay in filming.) The club owners, played by Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne, have an engaging brotherly relationship, which has its payoff in a glorious scene after one of them has been kidnapped. Nicholas Cage, basically roped into this production because his uncle needed whoever was available, shows some signs of the intensity that would quickly define his career. Overall, as one might expect from Coppola, the ensemble is great.

The visuals are something else, a kaleidoscope of glass, neon, and atmospheric effects, best shown off in a passing-of-time montage which feels both old fashioned and modern. Just the look is seductive, and when it’s combined with an energetic, slightly sloppy narrative, the result feels more warm and welcoming than a lot of more formally refined pictures.

This was one of those movies that had no chance of living up to the stories and rumors that were swirling around it during production. The film opened to acceptable if unspectacular business, but Orion at some point announced they would retool the material into a TV miniseries, effectively killing its theatrical run. (I don’t think this miniseries ever materialized.) Since then it’s sunk into the background; Coppola would manage a comeback with PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, and this and other pictures were forgotten. But it shouldn’t be. It may not be the filmmaker’s best work, but it’s surprising in its agility and vibrance. When one considers just how wildly out of control the production was even before the director stepped in, it’s a miracle that what we get sails as smoothly as it does.

Inspired by the book by James Haskins
Story by William Kennedy, Francis Coppola, and Mario Puzo
Directed by Francis Coppola

Grade: B+

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