I didn’t really want to see “The Cotton Club” when it came out. I was a college freshman, and there wasn’t much to do. So, we used to get wasted and go to the dollar theater.
Thank the movie gods there was nothing else on!
Production of “The Cotton Club” was a hot mess. It was over budget (for both filmmaker ego and money). There was an international arms dealer among the financiers, for crying out loud.
Francis Coppola was brought in late, and demanded rewrites, etc.
Long story short, this film had almost no chance of success.
It was a miracle.
It’s natural to compare “The Cotton Club” to Coppola’s “Godfather” films. They have the same Caravaggio painting beauty, and moments of amazing violence.
I’ve been trying to parse what the other filmic elements were. “Singin’ in the Rain” came to mind. Sure! It is full of amazing songs and dancing, plus a subplot about the early days of talkies.
But there was one thing missing, and I couldn’t place it till tonight.
“Dick Tracy.” Yes, the Warren Beatty version. There’s a touch of cartoon in “The Cotton Club,” but just a dash, mainly for color.
There are so many relationships in “The Cotton Club,” that it would take less time to watch the film than to describe them all. The main story follows a young white musician named Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere). His brother is a high-strung idiot gangster wannabe named Vincent (Nicolas Cage). One night, Dixie is playing cornet at a jam session. He starts flirting with an ambitious teenage flapper named Vera Cicero (Diane Lane), when some bad guys try to blow up mobster Dutch Schultz (James Remar). From then on, both young people are on Schultz’s payroll.
Also in the club that night are Clay and “Sandman” Williams (Maurice and Gregory Hines). They try out for The Cotton Club, and join the troupe. Sandman falls ass over teakettle in love with Lila Oliver (Lonette McKee). Of all the movie couples in history, I was really pulling for them to make it.
Against all this is gangland violence, racial strife, and oh so much music. The Cotton Club was a real Harlem nightspot, and it’s the backdrop for multiple storylines here. Ownie Madden (Bob Hoskins) owns the joint, which he runs with his hulking friend and enforcer, Frenchie (Fred Gwynne). Their bromance is one of the films highlights.
The last reel contains an amazing scene of juxtaposed tapdancing and murder. It’s brilliant. The denoument is a bright almost fantasy that ties up loose ends, and gives us an ending worthy of such a film.
“The Cotton Club” is largely about the music. Richard Gere plays his own cornet solos, as well as singing and playing piano. The Hines Brothers began their song and dance career before most kids can read, and they bring that professional and personal ease to the screen. Lonette McKee wrote and recorded songs as a teen. The guy who plays Cab Calloway has a huge voice.
Some of the casting choices reflect this film’s eccentricity. Tom Waits is The Cotton Club emcee, and he chews it up. Broadway legend Gwen Verdon plays the Dwyer brothers’ mother. In the last scene, she accompanies Dixie to Grand Central Station. She stops at one point, and jumps in, giving dancing tips to a young girl dancing for coins. Finally, as perhaps the oddest piece of casting, Lucky Luciano is played by Joe Dalessandro. Dalessandro starred in many of the Andy Warhol/Paul Morissey films of the ’60s and ’70s. Remember Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”? He’s the hustler, “Little Joe.” Somehow, this speaks volumes.
I understand that I love this movie more than most people. Then again, I’m right, so NYAHH. 😉
(“Blazing Saddles” links: Count Basie plays in “Blazing Saddles,” slapping five with Bart when he rode toward Rock Ridge. Count Basie also played many a gig at The Cotton Club)