Tuesday, April 17, 2018
The Cotton Club
Based on the historical picture book by James Haskins, The Cotton Club is the story of a musician who finds himself falling for a mobster’s girlfriend where he gets himself into trouble during the era of Prohibition. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and screenplay by Coppola and William Kennedy from a story by Coppola, Kennedy, and Mario Puzo, the film is a stylish gangster-musical film of sorts as it is set largely in this nightclub. Starring Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Lonette McKee, Bob Hoskins, James Remar, Nicolas Cage, Allen Garfield, Laurence Fishburne, Gwen Verdon, and Fred Gwynne. The Cotton Club is a lavish yet incoherent film from Francis Ford Coppola.
Told in the span of the final years of the famed gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar), the film follows a coronet player who falls for Schultz’s teenaged girlfriend as he’s given a job to protect her after saving him from an assassination attempt where things eventually become complicated. The film doesn’t just explore the life of this cornet player who is love with this young woman but also a tap dancer who is trying to pursue a singer who sings at the titular club that feature a lot of African-American singers, musicians, and dancers yet they can’t be at the club as audience members. The film’s screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and William Kennedy want to showcase this world that is the center of the gangster world in New York City. Yet, there’s so many characters in the story including real-life gangsters as it eventually becomes messy to understand what is going on and what it wants to be.
There’s this love story where the cornet player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) pursuing Schultz’s girlfriend Vera (Diane Lane) as well as the story of his tap-dancing friend Sandman (Gregory Hines) trying to woo the mixed-race singer Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee). The narrative would move back-and-forth into these storylines as well as Schultz’s activity in the world of crime as he would find himself becoming a rival of Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) and his right-hand man Frenchy (Fred Gwynne). Madden owns the Cotton Club which would have Schultz later form a rival club yet they would use Harlem as the place of conflict with some of Schultz’s men including Dixie’s brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) getting into trouble with some of the locals including Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne) who decides to fight back. It all takes place in the span of a few years as the script wouldn’t just try to be this romantic-gangster drama with elements of musical performances. Its major drawback is that blend of genres as well as dialogue that isn’t strong and characters that aren’t engaging enough.
Coppola’s direction is definitely stylish in terms of its presentation of the film as it has elements of old Hollywood and these lavish musical numbers with intricate choreography by Henry LeTang. Shot largely in New York City with its interiors shot at the Astoria studio in the city, the film does play into this high-octane world of New York City gangster life during the days of Prohibition. Coppola would use wide shots to get a scope of the locations in its exteriors as well as the performances that include tap dance numbers, choirgirl dances, and all sorts of things that was prevalent during the days of Prohibition. Much of the direction that Coppola aims for is style in its usage of slanted camera angles, close-ups, and medium shots to capture the atmosphere of the clubs. Even as the moments of violence are intense such as this dramatic re-creation of Vincent leading an assassination on one of Schultz’s men where some children are killed. It’s among some of the key moments in the film where it manages to overcome many of the script’s shortcomings including an argument scene involving Madden and Frenchy as it’s presented in a very simple yet direct medium shot.
For all of the lavishness, stylish musical numbers, and homage to the gangster films of the time, Coppola unfortunately doesn’t find a center into the film as much of its centerpiece takes place in the titular club. Rarely, the characters of Dixie and Sandman would interact as the script never establishes more of their friendship in favor of their respective romantic pursuits. The direction is all over the place where it messes up much of the film’s tone as it would be one genre and then go into something else. Even the film’s ending which mixes fantasy and reality of what happens to the characters wants to be this traditional Hollywood ending but the result is extremely messy as Coppola tried to end it with a sense of style. Overall, Coppola creates an extravagantly rich but inconsistently tonal film about life at a club during the days of Prohibition.
Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its stylish approach to lighting for some of the musical performances as well as the look of the exteriors set at night. Editors Barry Malkin and Robert Q. Lovett do excellent work with the editing as it is stylish with its usage of dissolves and transition wipes to play into the film’s frenetic style. Production designer Richard Sylbert, with set decorators Leslie Bloom and George Gaines plus art director Gregory Bolton and David Chapman, does amazing work with the look of the nightclubs in all of its lavish form as well as the backstage areas and the places the characters would go to.
Costume designer Milena Canonero does incredible work with the costumes as it is a highlight of the film in the lavish dresses and costumes the women wear including the colored suits of the male performances in the musical numbers. Sound editor Edward Beyer does superb work with the sound with the way music sounds on location as well as the sounds of gunfire and other violent moments in the film. The film’s music by John Barry is fantastic for its orchestral-jazz based score that play into the period of the time with elements of blues music while music consultant Jerry Wexler would provide a soundtrack that feature many of the standards of the time that are performed by the actors in the film including Richard Gere playing his own cornet solos.
The casting by Lois Blanco and Gretchen Rennell is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles and appearances from Mario Van Peebles as a dancer at the Cotton Club, Mark Margolis as an assassin late in the film, Sofia Coppola as a young girl trying to sell Vince an apple, Giancarlo Esposito as one of Bumby’s hoods, Bill Cobbs as a veteran gangster in Big Joe Ison, Woody Strode as a Harlem veteran who advises Bumpy, Larry Marshall as the famed performer Cab Calloway, Rosalind Harris as the famed actress Fanny Brice, Jennifer Grey as Vince’s girlfriend Patsy, Tom Waits as the Cotton Club manager Irving Starck, Diane Venora as the actress Gloria Swanson who sees Dixie as a future film star, Lisa Jane Persky as Schultz’s girlfriend Frances Flegenheimer, Maurice Hines as Sandman’s brother Clay who would perform with Sandman as part of a tap duo, Julian Beck as Schultz’s advisor Sol Weinstein, Allen Garfield as Schultz’s accountant Otto Biederman, Joe Dalessandro as Lucky Luciano, and Gwen Verdon as Dixie and Vince’s mother Tish Dwyer who knew Madden who always liked her.
Fred Gwynne is terrific as Frenchy as Madden’s right-hand man who looks menacing yet is also calm unless he gets really angry while Bob Hoskins is superb as Owney Madden as the revered gangster that knows what to do and get things done but is also a man that has some morals where he tries to help out whoever he can. Nicolas Cage is fantastic as Vince Dwyer as Dixie’s brother who is trying to be a gangster working for Schultz only to get carried away to the point that he becomes trouble for everyone. Laurence Fishburne is brilliant as Bumpy Rhodes as a Harlem gangster who has had it with Vince and Schultz’s antics as he decides to fight back and get some rights for his people. James Remar’s performance as Dutch Schultz definitely has the ferocity and anger of Schultz but it also borders into parody at times where it’s a mixed bag overall as Remar isn’t given more to do but be angry and jealous for most of the film and rarely display any kind of sensitivity.
Lonette McKee is good as Lila Rose Oliver as a singer who is fascinated by Sandman but is keen on wanting to do other things as she is able to get opportunities that other women couldn’t get as she’s half-black, half-white as McKee’s performance is wonderful but very underwritten. Gregory Hines is excellent as Sandman as a tap dancer that is eager to perform at the Cotton Club and win over Lila as it’s definitely the best performance of the film where Hines is someone that is just trying to make it as he later copes with the chaos that is happening in Harlem as well as the prejudice he endures. Diane Lane is alright as Vera as Schultz’s teenaged mistress who wants to run a club as it’s a performance that has charm but not a lot of substance as her character doesn’t really do much but be pretty and be the object of affection. Finally, there’s Richard Gere in a decent performance as Dixie Dwyer as he does display a sense of charm while being a capable musician. It’s just that his character is also messy where he can be the nice and smooth talker one minute and then be an asshole the next minute as it’s just a messy performance from Gere.
The Cotton Club is an entertaining but extremely messy film from Francis Ford Coppola. Despite its gorgeous visuals, lavish production values, terrific supporting performances, and an enjoyable music score/soundtrack, it’s a film that had all of the right ideas on paper but doesn’t mesh well in terms of its execution. Notably as it tried to be so many things in one entire film only to have a lot of tonal issues as well as being more style over substance. In the end, The Cotton Club is a worthwhile but incoherent film from Francis Ford Coppola.
Francis Ford Coppola Films: (Tonight for Sure) – (The Bellboy and the Playgirls) – Dementia 13 - (You’re a Big Boy Now) – (Finian’s Rainbow) – (The Rain People) – The Godfather - The Conversation - The Godfather Pt. II - Apocalypse Now/Apocalyse Now Redux - One from the Heart - The Outsiders – Rumble Fish - (Peggy Sue Got Married) – (Garden of Stone) – (Tucker: The Man & His Dreams) – New York Stories-Life Without Zoe - The Godfather Pt. III - Bram Stoker's Dracula - (Jack) – (The Rainmaker) – (Youth Without Youth) – Tetro - (Twixt)
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