- Co-Written and Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
- December 14, 1984 (US)
The guests of and the goings on at the Cotton Club in Harlem.
The Cotton Club is a well-crafted film by Francis Ford Coppola but one not without its flaws. The story is okay, but the main reason to watch this film is the environment and the music of the era. You got song. You got dance. So many great performances based around the club. The film is a mix of fact and fiction. There are no major action sequences. No big spectacles. This a story about the characters.
The movie stars Richard Gere stars as musician Dixie Dwyer who starts working with the local mob to advance his career. Gere’s performance is good, but his accent is just shitty fake. Not everybody can put on a convincing accent. It is just not in their skill set.
Dixie goes from musician to movie star for…reasons but his time in Hollywood is difficult to recognize. It is brought up and mentioned but aside from upsetting Dixie’s mob boss it does little for the story. There is no change in the character or visible alteration in Dixie’s situation.
Gregory Hines plays Delbert “Sandman” Williams, a dancer by trade who eventually gets to perform at the club all the while romancing Lila (Lonette McKee). Hines is as charming and cool as one would expect. He had a way of making unlikeable characters likeable. Sandman is ambitious to the point of going behind his brother/partner Clay’s (Hine’s real life brother Maurice) back to get a solo gig.
In this movie Sandman and Dixie are supposed to be friends but they barely cross paths in the beginning and by the end you can be forgiven if you forget the characters know each other. Why include the connection if they are going to barely connect? If it was to highlight racial issues, and they do in the story, then both should have done more together. As it is, either narrative could have been removed from the film and you could have had a complete story with only minor tweaks. Or the two could have just had the Cotton Club in common with no obvious connection.
Diane Lane is singer Vera Cicero who is the mistress of Dixie’s friend mob boss Dutch Schultz (James Remar). Schultz initially hires Dixie to entertain Vera when he is not around but eventually Dixie and Vera start a relationship. It is a romance that just starts based on mild flirtation. They are more friend with benefits than lovers.
Aside from James Remar as Dutch Schultz, other real-life individuals get portrayed here. The great Bob Hoskins plays Cotton Club owner Owney Madden. Nicolas “Director’s Nephew” Cage is Vincent Dwyer who was a notorious hitman. Not sure of the real-life Dwyer’s family but here he is cast as Dixie’s brother. Allen Garfield is legendary mob accountant Otto Berman. Herman Munster himself Fred Gwynne is George “Big Frenchy” DeMange. That guy was truly one of the greats and never got the appreciation his talent deserved. Joe Dallesandro is noted mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Diane Venora is legendary actress Gloria Swanson. Rosalind Harris is comedienne Fanny Brice. Larry Marshall is singer Cab Calloway.
There are other known faces in small roles as fictional individuals. Laurence Fishburne is Bumpy Rhodes who is based off of Bumpy Johnson. The legendary Woody Strode is a doorman at the club. Tucker Smallwood is Kid Griffin. You may not know his name, but there is a good chance you recognize his voice or face for multiple things. Mario Van Peebles has a blink and you’ll miss it part. As does Jackée Harry as an unnamed dancer.
The world of The Cotton Club is a crime ridden world filled with brutal people and psychopaths. I was expecting something pretty light but there’s a scene early in the film when Dutch Schultz puts a knife through guy’s neck. When I saw that I knew they were not going to play nice here.
And there are plenty of openly racist characters in this movie. There are those who are casually racist to those who would have gladly helped Hitler run a gas chamber. They do not gloss over the reality of the era.
The Cotton Club is a well-done film that may not be for everybody. It’s a quieter story than one would get today. While I think everyone should check it out, I don’t think everyone will like it.