I’ve said before that I’d love to see more frock flicks set during the Harlem Renaissance, and I usually come back to The Cotton Club (1984) as a great movie that’s a failed attempt at what I’d like to see. This is really a gangster movie where occasional dance scenes break out. But the costumes and set design are really good, and it is an engaging, entertaining film, so I’m going to give it a review, even if this flick doesn’t satisfy all my needs.
The story focuses on Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), a jazz musician who inadvertently gets involved with a gangster, Dutch (James Remar), and the gangster’s girlfriend, Vera (Diane Lane). Of course, Vera falls in love with Dixie, and problems ensue. The Cotton Club itself is often a backdrop for the action, and a secondary plot involves Sandman (Gregory Hines), a dancer, who tries and succeeds at getting a job performing at the club and begins a romance with a singer, Lila (Lonette McKee).
The real Cotton Club was well-known during Prohibition through 1940, and the shows featured some of the most popular Black performers of the era, like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway (both portrayed in the film). The audience was whites-only, often including celebrities. The movie does make the point that characters like Sandman and his brother (played by Hines’ real brother and dancing partner Maurice Hines) aren’t allowed through the front door and can’t be seen as patrons, they’re only allowed on stage. Lila also passes as white to perform at another club and earn more money. The blatant and casual racism inherent to the period isn’t swept under the rug.
My disappointment with this film is that it’s a missed opportunity to show more of the experience from the Black point of view, not just a few glimpses. The story focuses on the rather obvious Dixie/Dutch/Vera love triangle, plus some gang violence. There’s a great opening scene with Sandman’s family, a fantastic sequence between him and Lila first at her church and then at a men’s social club, and a brilliant scene interspersing Sandman dancing onstage the Cotton Club with gang activities. There’s also an excellent speech by Laurence Fishburne as gangster Bumpy Rhodes talking about the limited options for Black men. But that’s it.
I’d love a movie that focuses on those characters more! Especially when I learned that the whole movie was inspired by a book about the Cotton Club written by James Haskins, who was, “determined to document the significant achievements of Black people,” according to the New York Times. Somewhere in the convoluted making of this movie — up to 12 screenwriters were involved, director Francis Ford Coppola walked off the set at one point, the budget went overboard, and a murder is loosely connected — the history of the Cotton Club got whitewashed. But hey, “it’s not real life, it’s jazz.”
Now, Coppola told Vanity Fair that the film’s backers complained to him: “Film’s too long. Too many black stories. Too much tap dancing. Too many musical numbers.” So he cut it down for the initial theatrical release. But I watched the re-released 2019 version titled “Cotton Club Encore,” a director’s cut that Coppola created and is supposed to be closer to his original vision. This is still the “not quite there” version I’m talking about — it’s better than what I remember watching in the ’90s but still feels like too much of a generic gangster story for me. According to one report, his early script was “a historical montage of the Harlem Renaissance that included civil-rights marches and readings by Black poets.” Wow, that’s the movie I want to see! Unfortunately, everyone else involved at the time hated this idea.
The re-released movie looks and feels like Coppola revisiting flashback parts of The Godfather Part II (1974), except not Sicily, just 1920s New York City. Much like that earlier film, we get a rich period setting, beautifully filmed, and with excellent historical costumes. Here, those costumes are designed by Milena Canonero, who had already won an Oscar for Barry Lyndon (1975) and Chariots of Fire (1981) at this point. In WWD, she said of The Cotton Club:
“It wasn’t the most difficult film I’ve worked on, but it was the most crazy. We had this extensive panoramic draft of a script, and one-liners gave an indication of lots of possible scenes that could be developed … In some films, especially in America, you may have some very good actor or actress who decides to do period films, but they keep their own look … It just upsets the whole thing. You might as well go home and give up … We tried to give [director] Francis [Ford Coppola] the right look, for the crowd as well as for the principals, so if he felt like pointing the camera in any direction, he could.”
And perhaps alluding to the shorter theatrical cut of the film, Canonero said in a 1986 New York Times interview that she’d heard the video version would incorporate more footage: “On such a big picture so much gets done and it’s not there. It’s frustrating.”
All the costume details are here in the “encore” version, from undies to hats to stage wear. Diane Lane’s character gets the most vampy, flapper outfits, while Lonette McKee’s character has more elegant chanteuse style gowns.
Have you seen The Cotton Club — the original release or the encore edition?