“The Cotton Club” tells two intertwining stories of a jazz musician Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) and a neighborhood friend, Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines). Dixie saves the life of gangland kingpin Dutch Schultz (James Remar), and Sandman wants to be a famous dancer and fall in love with a singer/dancer, Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee), who can pass for white.
After the botched hit, Dutch hires Dixie to play his coronet and keep Dutch’s mistress, Vera (Diane Lane), company during the day.
These stories revolve around the nightclubs of Harlem, all of which employed black singers, dancers and musicians but did not allow black patrons, including The Cotton Club.
“The Cotton Club “is populated with real-life characters, like Dutch, Owney Madden, Bumpy Rhodes, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Fanny Brice, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, James Cagney and Cab Calloway.
Coppola isn’t afraid to stop “The Cotton Club” storyline to showcase a musical number. There is even a wonderful recreation of jazz giant Cab Calloway (Larry Marshall) performing the most beloved, and most misunderstood, jazz song ever — “Minnie The Moocher.” Coppola also uses the musical numbers to punctuate the action in some scenes, whether it’s violence or romance, with effective results.
While we will never know what The Cotton Club truly was like; the film is the closest we’ll ever get and it is pretty good facsimile.
“The Cotton Club” owes its style and aesthetics to musicals and gangster movies of the 1930s and not from “The Godfather” films.
“The Godfather” films created a mythology around the underworld, a mythology mobsters took as their own and still seem to follow today. “The Cotton Club” is probably closer portrayal of the real murderous, greedy gangsters of its day. The sins of the characters in “The Godfather” films are almost venial in comparison to those of “The Cotton Club.”
The racial tensions didn’t just exist between whites and blacks, but between light- and dark-skinned blacks.
Gere is passable as a jazz musician. I’ll be completely honest; I think Richard Gere is probably one of the worst actors to ever walk on a stage or screen. I will never understand why he is ever employed, other than maybe because he is handsome.
Either way, Gere was good in a couple of things for maybe two or three minutes. Thankfully, “The Cotton Club” has plenty of other actors to distract you from Gere’s horridness.
Hines is good in the film, but with Hines’ film work you must ask yourself one thing before watching it: Does he tap dance in this one?
If the answer is “yes,” than watch it. Hines is one of the finest tap dancers, and the genius in tap shoes must been seen.
Two of the finest performances in “The Cotton Club” are by Bob Hoskins (Owney Madden) and Fred Gwynne (Frenchy Demange), the owner of The Cotton Club and his right-hand man. They are simultaneously menacing and comical, true hidden gems in this hidden gem of Coppola’s body of work.
“The Cotton Club” was a commercial failure and had the added misfortune of being one of the most troubled productions in Hollywood history. One of the film’s financiers was killed during the filming, and famed producer Robert Evans had huge disagreements with Coppola about the script, production and budget.
While “The Cotton Club” is a fine film, what is truly the major discovery of this movie is the music, of course.
Do yourself a favor and head to iTunes, or one of its competitors, and search “Cotton Club jazz.” It will be an education in great music and its clever and subversive lyrical content.
The joint will be jumpin’.
“Lost & Found” is a weekly column and review of films the author Seames O’Grady, self-professed movie expert, has in his DVD collection or on his Netflix queue, but just hasn’t got around to watching until now.