‘The Cotton Club Encore’ Gives This Movie The Version it Deserves

thecottonclubencore-keyart

For years, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 film “The Cotton Club” was upstaged by its behind the scenes drama which included the cold-blooded murder of one of its financiers, Roy Radin. With Coppola teaming up again with producer Robert Evans and writer Mario Puzo, audiences must have been expecting another “Godfather” movie, but what they got was something quite different. Despite some good reviews, the movie proved to be a commercial failure, and far more time has spent documenting all of what went into its nightmarish making to where I am truly surprised Eleanor Coppola has never given us a documentary on it like she did with “Apocalypse Now.”

Now it is 35 years later, and Coppola has given us another version entitled “The Cotton Club Encore.” This version came about after he discovered an old Betamax video copy of his original cut which ran 25 minutes longer. From there, Coppola spent $500,000 of his own money to restore this film, and in the process he added 24 minutes and deleted 13 minutes to give us this new cut which just arrived in select theaters. For the record, I have not seen the original 1984 version, but after watching “The Cotton Club Encore,” I am certain I do not even need to bother as this cut is outstanding and absolutely exhilarating to take in. What seemed deeply flawed in the past now seems almost perfect.

In essence, “The Cotton Club” is about two men trying to navigate the hurdles life keeps throwing at them. One is cornet player Dixie Dwyer (played by Richard Gere) who arrives back in Harlem to see his family which includes his mother Tish (Gwen Verdon in an inspired piece of casting) and his brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) who looks to be all too enthusiastic about becoming a mobster. After saving the life of gangland kingpin Dutch Schultz (James Remar), Dixie finds himself getting involved in the criminal element which, despite his better judgment, succeeds in elevating his career as a musician to a whole new level. In the process, however, he does make the mistake of falling in love with Dutch’s girlfriend, Vera Cicero (Diane Lane). Suffice to say, romances like these come with bloody endings rather than happy ones.

The other main man in this story is Delbert “Sandman” Williams (Gregory Hines) who, along with his brother Clayton “Clay” Williams (Maurice Hines, Gregory’s brother), get hired to perform at The Cotton Club, a jazz club located in Harlem which featured a roster of black (or African American if you will) performers who sang and danced their hearts out. While there, Delbert becomes infatuated with a singer named Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee) to where he cannot wait to sweep her off her feet. But it doesn’t take long for the cracks to show in his personal and professional life as he gets constantly berated by club management which is intent on reminding him where his place is, and he later makes a decision which threatens to tear him and his brother apart forever.

The Cotton Club was a real club in New York which was open from 1923 to 1940, and while it did feature mostly black performers, no one of color could patronize it and the clientele was white. This irony ended up lasting all the way up this film’s making as the financiers, worried the long running time, gave Coppola the following notes:

“Film’s too long. Too many black stories. Too much tap dancing. Too many musical numbers.”

Coppola by then was so burned out emotionally from the movie’s production that he acquiesced to the financiers and cut down many of the African-American related scenes to where the focus was more on the gangsters and the Gere/Lane love story. No wonder he sounds so weary when talking today about the changes he made and of how regretful he was about compromising his vision. It also serves as a sad statement of how things in show business did not change much as, even in the 1980’s, African-Americans were still getting the short end of the stick.

With “The Cotton Club Encore,” Coppola has restored much of the African-American storyline, and this is really where the movie is at its best. Seeing these actors and singers perform their hearts out is endlessly thrilling as is the director’s success in transporting us back to the bygone era of the 1930’s. Coppola really does take us back in time to where I felt like I lived through this era which brought with it great music, good and bad times, violence and, among other things, a stock market crash. Heaven forbid we ever go through anything like that crash again, huh?

One of the big treats of all though is watching Gregory Hines and his brother Maurice dance the night away. Both are extraordinary tap dancers, and the love they had for performing is on display throughout as they make their moves look like a piece of cake. Seeing Gregory here serves as a strong reminder of what an incredibly talented and gifted artist he was, and it is also especially bittersweet as he has long since left the land of the living. He was only 57 years old when he passed away after a battle with liver cancer, and he is still missed.

Indeed, this bittersweet feeling threatened to overwhelm me at times as “The Cotton Club Encore” features a number of actors who have since died like Bob Hoskins who portrays the ruthless club owner Owney Madden, and Fred Gwynne as his right-hand man, Frenchy Demange. The scene these two actors have together following a hostage situation is classic, and is another reminder of the talent we have lost over the years.

Another tremendous performance to be found in “The Cotton Club” comes from Lonette McKee, an actress I first became familiar with in “Brewster’s Millions.” With this new cut, Coppola has gone out of his way to restore her showstopping number of “Stormy Weather,” and watching her belt it out left me speechless. She doesn’t just sing the song, she lives through it, and it is an emotionally draining moment I still think about. It is one thing for a singer to hit all the right notes, and it is another to really perform it to where you are giving the most vulnerable performance imaginable, and McKee pulls this off beautifully.

The movie’s other main story of an illicit love affair had me worried for a bit as this tale has been told countless times on stage and screen to where we feel like we know how it will go. Regardless, it still proves to be enthralling in its own way. While it is easily upstaged by the African-American story, it is still fun to see Richard Gere and Diane Lane mix up as they prove to have a palpable chemistry which they would build on years later when they starred in Adrian Lyne’s “Unfaithful.” While it is a little weird to hear Gere’s Bronx accent at first, he quickly reminds us why he is such a magnetic leading man, and he proves to be quite the coronet player as well.

The only real problem I had with “The Cotton Club,” and this is probably the case with either version, is there are too many plot threads which meander, some of which fail to reach a fulfilling conclusion. Despite his efforts, Coppola is unable to manage these various threads to where everything fits into a cohesive whole. At times, it almost made me wish he cut more out of this version as things might have flowed better as a result. And yes, there is that fake head (you will know it when you see it) which proves to be as fake as the baby in “American Sniper.” Perhaps some CGI magic could have helped with it.

Still, when all is said and done, “The Cotton Club Encore” proves to be a stunning achievement as Coppola has finally given this film the version it truly deserves. While he may have come onto this project as a hired hand at first, it is clear to me he really fell in love with the subject matter and took joy in recreating a historical period which deserves far more than a passing glance.

It has been a big year for Coppola as he has announced plans to make his dream project “Megalopolis” a cinematic reality, and he also gave us another version of one of his classics with “Apocalypse Now: Final Cut.” With “The Cotton Club Encore,” he has righted the wrongs he made in the past, and he can now pat himself on the back instead of moan over the mistakes he made over 30 years ago. More importantly, this movie is no longer upstaged by its production stories and can now be appreciated on its own terms.

Relax Francis, you did great!

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Super Fly’ (1972)

Super Fly 1972 poster

With the remake about to be released, it was time to check out “Super Fly,” the 1972 blaxploitation crime drama which is considered one of the biggest classics of the genre. I have been aware of this film’s existence for years, and the photo on its VHS cover of Ron O’Neal holding a gun and looking ever so cool in his white suit and pants has been burned into my memory for decades. But like many movies I perused at local video stores, all of which have since vanished, I never got around to watching it until now.

While I certainly understand why “Super Fly” is long considered a classic blaxploitation film, it is not necessarily a great movie. On one hand the signs of its low budget are very much on display throughout to where I was reminded of what John Carpenter once said about the rule of making independent movies: “Shoot as little film as possible and make it as long as you can.” But on the other, it presents us with a New York time which no longer exists in modern day America, and the gritty realism of the city streets is on display throughout to where the movie’s existence is especially important as you can only fake this kind of realism in today’s cinematic world.

Ron O’Neal plays Youngblood Priest, an African-American drug dealer who enjoys a luxurious lifestyle in Harlem, New York. He got the name Priest because of the cross he wears around his neck. While this cross may or may not reflect his belief in God or any religious deity, a closer inspection reveals that the tip of the cross is fashioned in the shape of a spoon, and this allows him to do lines of cocaine whenever he needs a hit. In addition to his high-class apartment, the kind which would fetch at least a million in today’s New York real estate market, he also has a dedicated girlfriend in Georgia (Sheila Frazier), a white girl mistress named Cynthia (Polly Niles), the best set of clothes any man would be lucky to own and wear at the time, and he drives around town in a 1971 customized Cadillac Eldorado. Looking at Priest is to be convinced this is a man who has a lot of power and confidence you would be foolish to question, and this is something he does not have to spell out to anyone in words.

But as successful as Priest is, he yearns for a life outside of the underground drug business. This, of course, leads to him to plan one last “big score” which he believes will allow him to retire and go straight, but those of us who have watched countless gangster movies know this last big score will be the one fraught with the most danger. It gets to where there I expected the one scene where Priest just shakes his head as if to say to himself, “I should have gotten out of the life sooner, and now it’s too late.” Still, Priest is much smarter than his friends and foes realize, and we watch as he plots his way to his biggest drug deal ever, and then attempt to stay one step of everyone else who wants to do him in.

It has been said that the screenplay for “Super Fly” was only 45 pages long, and this is why we get exposed to so many shots of people walking, driving and talking in restaurants. This is the kind of film editing you would never see today as everything needs to move at a fast pace. This ends up dragging the movie down a bit as certain moments play themselves out for much longer than is necessary. Still, it allows us to take a look back at the New York that was before it, for better or worse, was cleaned up to where much of the state if unaffordable to live in. This helps to make up for other scenes which are staged rather pathetically, especially one in which a character gets hit by a car.

O’Neal immediately comes across as the personification of cool from the first moment he appears onscreen. He was in his 30’s when starred in “Super Fly,” but his face has the look of a man who has seen a lot in life up to that point, and this makes his performance as Priest feel all the more powerful and authentic. I never got the feeling he was trying to glamourize Priest’s lifestyle, and he was not afraid to make this character a rough and unlikable dude at times. He simply portrays Priest as a man who makes his way through life the only way he knows how, and his methods as you can imagine are not always morally sound.

As for the rest of the cast, their performances range from okay to pretty good. Charles McGregor, who was released from prison before “Super Fly” began filming, has some good moments as Fat Freddie, and Carl Lee, who plays Eddie, has a strong scene in which he tells Priest if it wasn’t for him, he would have overdosed. This line of dialogue would later prove to be tragically ironic as Lee became a heroin addict, and he died of a drug overdose back in 1986.

When “Super Fly” was released, many African-Americans were said to have been displeased with the way the movie glamourized people like themselves as drug dealers and pimps, but it resonated deeply with others who saw the movie as an example of how to rise up in the American class system. Does this movie glamourize the lifestyles of drug dealers? Well, perhaps it does, but the scary truth is there is always an allure to a life like this as it affords us a wealth which constantly seems out of our reach. Still, it should be noted how we never really see Priest enjoying himself much in the movie. While he has many things a person would want in life, we see right from the start how he has long since tired of his role in society to where it is believable and understandable why he yearns to do something legitimate for a change.

For those who think “Super Fly” provides audiences with a rather ambiguous look at the world of drugs and drug dealing back in the 1970’s, you need to take the time to listen Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to it which, by the way, is one of the best of its kind ever. An exhilarating fusion of soul and funk music, Mayfield also provided lyrics which were very socially aware and took an even closer look at drugs and poverty in society. When you read the lyrics of the song “Freddie’s Dead,” you can see the evidence of this very clearly:

“Everybody’s misused him

Ripped him up and abused him

Another junkie plan

Pushing dope for the man

A terrible blow

But that’s how it goes

A Freddie’s on the corner now

If you want to be a junkie, wow

Remember Freddie’s dead

We’re all built up with progress

But sometimes I must confess

We can deal with rockets and dreams

But reality, what does it mean

Ain’t nothing said

‘Cause Freddie’s dead.”

Looking at this, it is no wonder the soundtrack ended up making more money than the movie itself, and the movie did make a huge profit.

So “Super Fly” may not be an example of great filmmaking, but it should be noted how its production succeeded in offering advances for African-Americans. The city of Harlem went out of its way to back the movie financially, and many black businesses helped with production costs. Furthermore, the majority of the crew were in fact African-American, something which was very rare at this time in cinema. Taking all this into account makes “Super Fly” all the more enjoyable as it was a movie made with passion and respect as the filmmakers sought to tell it like it is. Despite its glaring flaws, it is a very cool movie to experience, and I am glad I finally got the chance to check it out, especially before I went out to see the remake.

* * * out of * * * *