In the late 1920’s anyone who was anyone liked to be seen not in mid-town Manhattan, but in Harlem, specifically at the hot night spot, “The Cotton Club”. Owned by notorious gangster Owney Madden, “The Cotton Club” was known far and wide for its on-stage talent, jazz musicians (and magicians) like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and many others. At this period in time, only blacks performed on stage and only whites were allowed on the floor. Even the performers themselves couldn’t get a seat in the house and had to enter through the back door.
Into all of this is thrust talented white jazz coronetist Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), who not starts out playing in smaller negro-owned dives—including one owned by another notorious gangster, Bumpy Rhodes (Larry Fishburne, playing a variation of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson—who he would later go on to play in Hoodlum)—and winds up as a driver for the lunatic Dutch Schultz (James Remar). This being a tough-guy movie, Dixie also winds up in bed with the Dutchman’s girl, Vera (Diane Lane), which naturally complicates things further. Making things worse, Dixie’s off-his-rocker brother Vincent is trying to muscle in on Schultz’s territory. In the meantime, Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) just wants to get into two things: the spotlight as a great dancer, and into the … heart of showgirl Lina (Lonette McKee, playing a character based on the very light-skinned Lena Horne), but running into the racism of the times, not to mention the seduction of fame.
There’s a lot going on in The Cotton Club, particularly musical numbers, so it’s occasionally tough to keep track of the ins, the outs and the double-crossings. We jump back and forth over the course of several years, finding ourselves dumped into whatever stage of life the characters happen to be in—Dixie’s sudden rise to fame as a Hollywood star in the fictional movie Mob Boss (the character based on both legendary (and doomed) jazz man Bix Beiderbecke and, more loosely, George Raft), Vera’s rise and fall as the owner of her own (Dutchman-backed) club, Sandman’s quarrel with his brother and dance partner, etc. But, as a viewer, you’re surrounded by rich characters and just fantastic music—even if you’re not that into jazz you can’t help but feel like dancing to so much of the score. And it’s a manly musical, after all, and you testosterone-proud fellas can feel confident watching the dancing and singing because it’s often punctuated by very, very violent death scenes. Jazz and booze and gangsters—The Cotton Club has it all.
Though far from a success when it was released in 1984, it went on to be a cable staple and developed a mild cult following over the years. Personally, it’s my favorite Francis Coppola movie if only because, at its heart and beneath all the squabbling, racial tensions and machine-gunning, it’s really about finding joy in your life, however brief, particularly joy in music.
What really put this movie on the map, however, was its lunatic production. Originally conceived as a vanity vehicle for himself, producer Robert Evans eventually bowed out and handed the reins over to Coppola. Allegedly, other producer Richard Sylbert decided to play both sides against the middle by telling Evans that Coppola hated Hollywood and would deliberately try to sink the film, while telling Coppola that Evans thought he was crazy and no one should work with him. Coppola resented Evans lording over him but couldn’t quit because he was in debt up to his eyeballs after losing his shirt on One from the Heart. And prior to any of this madness, Evans’ own extravagance had already spent millions of dollars before the first frame was shot. And speaking of shot, other producers consisted of lovely folks as arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and promoter Roy Radin—the latter of whom was found murdered in 1983, presumably by a trio of thugs hired by his onetime partner and (possible) drug dealer Karen De Layne Greenberger (and, also possibly, members of the Puerto Rican mob).
Still, when all is said and done, The Cotton Club is noisy, atmospheric and delightful. If you give it a chance, you’ll feel the 128 minutes breeze right by. It’s not hard to find, either, despite it being “technically” out of print—copies can be found online, in the Wal-Mart bins, even little clearance stores that are Meccas for cheap DVDs. If you haven’t already, swing by the Club