Released in 1984 to mixed reviews and box office failure, the musical drama has been expanded in a masterful new presentation
Francis Ford Coppolas main revenue stream lately has been as a vintner. And as with a fine wine, his film The Cotton Club, first released in 1984 to a muted response, has blossomed with age.
The Cotton Club Encore is an expanded rework of the original, from, in Coppolas own words, a less frightened, less easily bullied director. Like the good bootlegger he is, he put half a million dollars of his own liquor money into this project. (A presented by credit also goes to the family of Las Vegas real estate mogul, Lorenzo Doumani.) Musical numbers which were excised from the previous release are restored. The studio also demanded that the storyline focused on the African American characters be reduced. This is given greater (though still not equal) footing now. At the time The Cotton Club was a box office dud and got one of its leads nominated for a Razzie. The Cotton Club Encore (plus 35 years of distance) is absolutely terrific.
The Cotton Club was an institution of the Harlem Renaissance, where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway (both given moments to shine in the film) revolutionized popular music. The performers were almost exclusively black and the clientele, at least at first, was only white. The first scene in the movie shows the great African American actor Woody Strode as the doorman turning away a potential patron for being too dark.
The dcor at the Cotton Club fetishized the black experience for its white audiences, with a Plantation-style set and exaggerated, sexualized murals. Yet on the stage one was given the privilege to witness black excellence. The secondary story in the movie is the arc of Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines), an enormously talented tap dancer. He catches his break at the club with an act featuring his brother (played by his actual brother, Maurice) and soon falls in love with Lila Rose (Lonette McKee), one of the light-skinned Cotton Club Beauties. In time, Lila Rose will struggle with whether to take advantage of her ability to pass as white and play the clubs outside of Harlem.
Early on we see Sandman palling around with Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), a cornet player and good-natured Harlem resident. As a proxy for modern white audiences to feel secure that, yes, there were some good ones back then, Dwyer has no interest in bigotry, even if the Irish, Jewish and (eventually) Italian gangsters who run the club and its environs are quick to toss epithets around.
This isnt to imply that Dwyer is a saint. Hell call a Jewish mob enforcer (played by Julian Beck) that Golem and sighs that he doesnt want to be treated like an N-word. But the nuance found between a characters environment and his intentions is part of, in my opinion, what makes good storytelling.
Dwyers woes begin when he saves a mans life. Turns out it is legendary bootlegger Dutch Schultz (James Remar). Schultz takes a liking to him, and hires him to play music at one of his parties. (Of note: Richard Gere actually plays cornet and piano himself in this movie, and hes good!) Things get complicated when Dwyer is pressed into service as Schultzs bodyman. Hes forced to chaperone Schultzs girl Vera (Diane Lane in some outstanding period costumes) and, wouldnt you know it, the two fall in love. The two actors have remarkable chemistry and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt does not skimp on making the pair look gorgeous.