Monday, April 13, 2015

Film Review: The Cotton Club

"The Cotton Club"  ** (out of ****)

The joint is jumpin' in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Cotton Club" (1984).

On paper, someone who knows me, would think to themself, gosh, "The Cotton Club" sure seems like the kind of movie Alex Udvary would enjoy watching. I originally thought the same thing myself. I have now seen "The Cotton Club" twice and unfortunately the movie never works for me.

"The Cotton Club" was the name of a famed nightclub in Harlem in the 1920s and 30s where all the major African American jazz musicians, such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, would perform for wealthy white audiences. As a jazz lover myself, especially jazz from the 1920s - 40s, which I grew up listening to, I was well aware of the Cotton Club and the fine musicians associated with it.

In Francis Ford Coppola's movie the nightclub serves as a reoccurring meeting spot for several of the characters. For other characters, mostly the African American characters, the Cotton Club served as their opportunity to reach fame and a better life, a chance to get out of the slums, even though African Americans were not allowed as guest in the club.

Coppola and his co-screenwriter, William Kennedy, have some fun with the mythology of the club and having characters play fictional versions of real performers, just as Coppola did in "The Godfather" (1972) and its sequels, where characters are suppose to be based on Frank Sinatra, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lanksy though never referred to by name. In "The Cotton Club", I have a hunch Coppola and Kennedy created characters meant to be Lena Horne (who did perform at the Cotton Club) and the Nicholas Brothers (who also performed at the club). And there is a character called Dutch Schultz, who was a real gangster in the 1920s and 30s. Many of the aspects surrounding this character are based on fact, including pressure from prosecutor Thomas Dewey for tax evasion and threats from "Lucky" Luciano.

This may all add a level of "fun" for some viewers, this balancing act between fact and fiction, the ultimate question I found myself asking is, what is Francis Ford Coppola up to? What is this story ultimately suppose to be about? I never could think of an answer for that question.

There is a lot going on, story wise, in "The Cotton Club", which is the movie's main failure. There is not a single focal point narrative. That approach could work if the movie had intersecting characters whose actions influence other characters. But, I never came away with that feeling.

Coppola seems most interested in a story about racial dividing lines with in the Cotton Club. Two black performers, a tap dancer (Gregory Hines) and a singer (Lonette McKee), a light skinned black woman who can pass for white, and a white couple, a jazz musician (Richard Gere) and an ambitious flirt (Diane Lane) who becomes Schultz's girlfriend.

But, for me, that wasn't the most interesting aspect of the material Coppola was working with. Why not just make a story about two tap dancing brothers (Hines and Maurice Hines) called the Williams Brothers, who want to make it at the Cotton Club. When they do get their chance, "Sandman" Williams falls in love with a light skinned black singer, Lila (McKee) and endure hardship with in their relationship with her finding it easily to mingle among whites and find jobs.

The Cotton Club would still be that place where dreams can come true and represent a better life for African Americans and also represent all the hardships black performers must endure of not being treated equally. Only being able to perform for white audiences and blacks not being allowed into the Cotton Club as guest.

The viewer would also still get that mythology of the Cotton Club and the rich jazz history associated with it and we would get to hear some great music in the back round of the movie.

But Coppola complicates his story and throws in other sub-plots. Characters are created which don't seem fully developed and are unnecessary to the overall story of the movie.

One such story involves the younger brother of Dixie Dwyer (Gere), Vincent (Nicolas Cage). Outside of being Francis Ford Coppola's nephew there is no reason for Nicolas Cage to appear in this movie. It is nice that Coppola wanted to be a good uncle and put his nephew to work, but, it is a shame Coppola allows family ties to interfere with his movies.

Vincent ends up getting a job in Schultz's mob but soon feels he has outgrown his position working for Schultz and wants to become his own boss.

Once again, this type of story line could have served as its own narrative. The story of two brothers in Harlem. One wants to become a famous jazz musician and the other gets mixed up with the mob. The connection? It is the story of two men seeking a better life. And once again, the Cotton Club could serve as a place where dreams come true. Dixie could dream of one day being able to play along side the talent black musicians in the Cotton Club. In those days white musicians and perform with black musicians.

Coppola even throws in a love triangle story, because it is the only thing missing in the movie, besides more of Coppola's relatives. The triangle involves Dixie falling in love with a young whore, Vera (Lane) who finds Dixie attractive however Schultz makes Vera his girl and promises her one day she will have her own nightclub. While Vera may have feelings for Dixie, what difference does it make. Dixie is poor and can't offer Vera financial security the way Schultz is able to. But Dixie doesn't want to lose the woman he loves.

And finally we meet Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), who is the owner of The Cotton Club and his right hand man "Frenchy" Demange (Fred Gwynne). These two character provide an unnecessary element of comic relief and almost seem to have a homosexual relationship, which is never directly implied but subtly suggested as the two men argue like lovers.

Some have suggested comparing "The Cotton Club" to "The Godfather". "The Godfather" had ambition, clearly defined characters, a consistent narrative, "The Cotton Club" on the other hand lacks all those things.

"The Cotton Club" was made at a difficult time in the life of director Coppola. He lost a fortune after he released "One From the Heart" (1981). After "Apocalypse Now" (1979) it became "fashionable" to criticize his work and declare he had lost his touch. Nearly everything he made in the 1980s was a box-office flop. "The Cotton Club" was not a success either and was plagued with problens during production and pre-production.

None of that matter now of course. Enough time has passed where audiences today will not be concerned with these stories. Now the movie can be judged purely on its own merits and not compete with its own headlines and controversies.

On a technical level "The Cotton Club" has a lot going for it. I enjoy the cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt, I especially like the music, consisting of songs such as Duke Ellington's "The Mooche", "Crazy Rhythm", "Minnie the Moocher", "Ill Wind" and "Mood Indigo". The costume and production design nicely capture the time period as well. These are the great assets of the movie. But Coppola couldn't properly create an appropriate screenplay to fit the music and costumes.