Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gregory Hines, Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Lonette McKee, James Remar, Maurice Hines, Bob Hoskins, Fred Gwynne, Nicolas Cage, Allen Garfield, Gwen Verdon, Laurence Fishburne, Tom Waits, Jennifer Grey, Diane Venora, Woody Strode, Giancarlo Esposito
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola, William Kennedy, based on a story by Francis Ford Coppola, William Kennedy, Mario Puzo
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 139
Date: 12/10/1984

The Cotton Club (1984)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Dutch Oven

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

By the time Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club was released in theaters in December of 1984 its troubled production history had already been in the news, and most critics and viewers were prepared to receive it as a bomb. Thankfully Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave it a real chance on their show, and they both named it one of the ten best films of the year. I saw it a few months later, several times, probably on a grubby VHS tape, and loved it too.

But I haven't seen it since, and I always found it difficult to track down on its out-of-print DVD or on streaming. In 2019, Coppola refurbished the film, adding some 12 minutes and re-released it as The Cotton Club Encore. I saw it afresh on Blu-ray, and found myself dazzled once again. It's a film of surfaces and perceptions, celebrating the vibrant atmosphere around that famous club, but also touching on the rancid crime and racism just below the surface.

Gregory Hines and Richard Gere are the two stars, playing tap-dancer Sandman Williams and cornet player Dixie Dwyer, respectively. They cross paths at various points in the film and exchange pleasantries, but otherwise their connection is more of a thematic one. Sandman gets a job at the Cotton Club (where blacks are only allowed on stage and must enter through a back door), along with his brother Clay (Maurice Hines, Gregory's real-life brother).

He falls for a beautiful, light-skinned chorus girl (Lonette McKee) and advances through the ranks, leaving his brother behind. Meanwhile, Dixie falls for Vera Cicero (Diane Lane), but unfortunately so does gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar). When Dixie unexpectedly saves Dutch's life during a shootout, Dutch takes Dixie under his wing; his career takes off, but he feels like a prisoner.

The movie has an enclosed, interior feel like an old MGM musical, or like Coppola's own One from the Heart, but it has a thumping heartbeat. The songs and dances are exciting and energizing — the swooping cinematography and tommy-gun cutting work wonders — and even the dialogue has a staccato rhythm (often overlapping, like in Howard Hawks's films). An amazing cast of supporting characters keeps turning up, starting with Bob Hoskins, great as the club owner Owney Madden, and Fred Gwynne as his loyal right-hand man Frenchy. Nicolas Cage has an early, unhinged role as Dixie's kid brother, excitedly working for Dutch.

Also look for Allen Garfield (from Coppola's The Conversation), Gwen Verdon as Dixie's mom, Laurence Fishburne, Tom Waits, Jennifer Grey, Diane Venora, Woody Strode, Giancarlo Esposito, Larry Marshall as Cab Calloway, and, apparently, Mario Van Peebles as a dancer. William Kennedy, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Ironweed that same year, co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola, from a story by the two of them and Mario Puzo. It's a great film, suggesting that Coppola's first four 1980s films (One from the Heart, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, and The Cotton Club) were nearly as good as his 1970s masterpieces.

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