The Cotton Club (1984)
Gere Blows Dixie but it ends up Double Dutch
You've got about as much style as a bowl of turnips - Vera
Theoretically "The Cotton Club" should be a stunning movie, well at least on paper. It had a brilliant director in Francis Ford Coppola, no other than Mario Puzo had a hand in writing it, Robert Evans produced it and that is before we even get to the cast which includes Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Gregory Hines, Lonette McKee, Bob Hoskins, James Remar, Nicolas Cage and Fred Gwynne. But whilst on paper it looks good the "The Cotton Club" ends up a stunningly stylish but ultimately unfocussed mess as it has too many characters and too many storylines all fighting for attention.
"The Cotton Club" is the sprawling tale of a Harlem night club and those who frequent it in particular cornet player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere - An Officer and a Gentleman), young flapper Vera Cicero (Diane Lane - Streets of Fire), dancer Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines - The Preacher's Wife) and the various owners and mob bosses who do their deals in shady corners.
"The Cotton Club" starts quite well with some stylish opening credits followed by Richard Gere blowing his horn, sorry Cornet, in a jazz session before saving the life of mob boss Dutch. But then before you know it there is too much going on as we are introduced to characters all of which seem to have a storyline attached. So we get stories surrounding Dixie including his relationship with young flapper Vera, his work with Dutch and then another mob boss Madden, his rise to movie star and also his brother Vincent also working for Dutch. Then there are others focussing on Gregory Hines character Sandman and his dancing, his relationship with singer Lila Rose which brings the whole racial aspect of things with 'The Cotton Club' where people go being a whites only club but with predominantly black performers and do you know what that barely scratches the surface of the storylines which all vie for screen time. As you can guess that it gets quite messy as other than Gere's character of Dixie being a central figure, it weaves between all these storylines never giving each really enough time.
What's actually annoying is that all these storylines are good, or at least good in the sense that they are interesting and you want to know more. Many of which are reality driven as they paint a sort of nostalgic picture of the late 20s where racial issues were plenty and mobsters controlled things. But there is far too much going on to allow any of them to really develop properly.
What is for certain is that "The Cotton Club" oozes style in every single scene, every set, every costume and musical interlude. It makes it a movie easy on the eye whisking you back to the jazz rooms of the 1920s where mobsters controlled things and the song and dance flowed freely. But whilst stylish and sort of part of the storyline the various song and dance moments feel occasionally at odds with everything. Watching Gregory Hines and his brother Maurice ferociously tap dance their way through a scene, spinning at a rate of knots is impressive but it feels like a manufactured scene, thrown in purely because of their stunning dancing ability. The same can be said for a few of the musical numbers which whilst part of the storyline end up feel like they are overly manufactured, fantasy like and ending up feeling wrong. Although kudos to Richard Gere who according to the opening credits did his own cornet solos.
Talking of Richard Gere he's actually quite entertaining as the central figure of Dixie Dwyer, he looks right as a cornet player and shows the right amount of fear as well as balls as someone who finds himself working for mobsters. In fact Gere is one of the best things about "The Cotton Club" and in their first movie together works well with Diane Lane. Talking of which Diane Lane is as solid as ever playing the sexy Vera Cicero, the mobsters other half and love interest for Gere. The chemistry between Gere and Lane is again brilliant as has been the case in their other movies together "Unfaithful" and "Nights in Rodanthe".
Away from what really is the central pairing then "The Cotton Club" features impressive performances from Gregory Hines, Lonette McKee, Bob Hoskins, James Remar, Fred Gwynne, Maurice Hines, Laurence Fishburne, Tom Waits, Jennifer Grey and even Coppola's nephew Nicolas Cage gets a prominent role and that is not even close to a full list of those who have important roles in this sprawling movie. That again is where the problem lies because whilst you can't fault a single performance and the partnership of Hoskins and Gwynne as Madden and Frenchy is one of the best there are just too many characters and storylines competing for screen time.
The thing is credit where it's due and Coppola stepped in to direct a movie which was in trouble. "The Cotton Club" was written, re-written and then re-written again on the fly whilst it was being filmed and as such it's almost a miracle that "The Cotton Club" came together at all. You get a sense of the troubles thanks to it being messy with the various storylines and you wonder what a magnificent movie it could have been if it hadn't been messed about with so much during production because as it stands it is entertaining but little else.
What this all boils down to is that "The Cotton Club" is a very entertaining movie; it's stylish and features some impressive performances. But it suffers from being unfocussed trying to cram far too much into a single movie. Which is a shame because it has the potential to be far more than it is.
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