"Where deals were made, lives were traded, and legends of jazz lit up the night."
Several film buffs are content to divide a line down the middle of Francis Ford Coppola's career, praising his pre-Apocalypse Now work, while bashing his post-Apocalypse Now offerings. The Cotton Club falls into that latter category, but did it deserve the ire from the critics and the indifference at the box office that it received? MGM gives us the answers with its debut of The Cotton Club on DVD.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1928, the setting is Harlem and the subject is jazz. The Cotton Club is a hot nightspot where famous movie stars, gangsters and politicians listen to the greatest names in jazz perform nightly. When Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), a coronet player, saves the life of notoriously violent gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar), Dutch promises Dixie he'll repay the favor. Dixie ends up as Dutch's beard, escorting his mistress, beautiful singer Vera Cicero (Diane Lane), to the club so Dutch's wife doesn't get wise. Meanwhile, tap dancers Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) and his brother Clay (Maurice Hines) vie for a spot performing at the "whites only" club, though it showcases only black performers like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Dixie and Vera resent each other, but they actually are in love, though they keep this a secret from Dutch for fear of his retribution. Meanwhile, Dixie's younger brother Vinnie (Nicolas Cage) starts a street war with Dutch over the income from the numbers racket. Sandman falls in love with a beautiful Cotton Club singer named Lea Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee) and decides to take his act solo. This causes a rift between Sandman and Clay. The remainder of the film follows the relationship of all of these characters through the years of The Great Depression, as Vera gets her own club and Dixie becomes a famous screen gangster. But Dixie is still dangerously tied to his past life in Harlem through his love for Vera and the jealousy of Dutch Schultz.
Francis Ford Coppola's take on the Harlem of the late '20s and '30s is all about eye candy. It's no surprise that The Cotton Club was nominated for an Oscar for Art Direction and probably would have won had it not been the year of Amadeus. The sets and costumes are brilliant, as are the dance numbers and musical performances. For this reason alone, The Cotton Club is worth a viewing. But Coppola obviously values style over substance here. Working from his own script (co-written with William Kennedy with story help from Mario Puzo), Coppola's film is surprisingly light on story. The relationships between the main characters feel more peripheral to the story than they should, as if what is going on is less important than where it's going on.
Part of the problem is the wooden performances by leads Gere and Lane. Gere is one of those actors (like Kevin Costner) that should avoid accents entirely. He just can't pull off the New York dialect. Lane is gorgeous and has a beautiful singing voice (if that's her), but doesn't bring any real heart to the part. The supporting cast is much better. James Remar as Dutch Schultz chews the scenery in true James Cagney fashion. Bob Hoskins is great as Cotton Club owner Owney Madden, as is Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster himself) as Owney's sidekick. Lonette McKee steals the show as Lee Rose Oliver, a beautiful singer, who conflicted over her ability to pass as a white vocalist in restricted clubs. If nothing else, fast forward to her musical performances.
MGM has released The Cotton Club under its "Contemporary Classics" banner. As I've stated above, I'm not sure the film quite lives up to that designation, but at least MGM has seen fit to give the film an anamorphic transfer. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the video has some noticeable defects. Throughout at least the first third of the picture, there is significant grain and dirt on the print. It seems to clear up for the second half of the film. The picture is also a little too soft, but colors were good and I didn't notice any digital artifacting. I'm surprised that MGM couldn't find a cleaner print, especially for a film that's comparatively recent. I've seen much older films that look better than this one.
The Cotton Club is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, though it makes little use of the rear channels. The sound is spread between the front three speakers. It's a very nice mix; the musical sequences are particularly good. Dialogue is crisp and clear. Also included on the disc is a French mono track, as well as French and Spanish subtitles. Incidentally, there are several instances of bad dubbing in The Cotton Club, including Richard Gere's final line. This is, of course, no complaint against the DVD itself, but it is very distracting. It could be due to the fact that The Cotton Club was being rewritten even as it was shooting.
Since The Cotton Club is generally considered a flop, it's no surprise that the disc is featureless. What we do get is a widescreen trailer that's in pretty decent shape. Even though the film isn't the highlight of Coppola's career, it was obviously a very personal project for him, and it might have been nice to hear a commentary from him. Another great addition would've been a documentary on the actual Cotton Club. But there are certainly more-deserving movies that don't have supplements either.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Coppola's made a mediocre film here, but it works as a document of the style of the times. It's definitely light on story, but so were the old James Cagney gangster pics it's trying to ape. Brian DePalma did a superior period piece with his version of The Untouchables a couple of years later.
The Cotton Club is an interesting film stylistically but devoid of a solid plot. MGM's DVD version matches its content in terms of its mediocrity. If you are a jazz buff, or enjoy this period of American history, The Cotton Club is worth a viewing. At roughly $14.99, MGM's price is at least acceptable.
I have to declare a mistrial. Not enough evidence to sway me either way.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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