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 about 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 * * * *