The backstory behind the making of Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 box office bomb The Cotton Club has all the the plot twists and palace intrigue that the movie wishes it could muster.
The movie is now being granted second life on DVD and streaming thanks to Coppola's $500,000 investment to update the finished film, retitling it The Cotton Club Encore. The movie itself can be called a landmark in cinema, re-establishing tap dancing as a cinematic joy and offering caution when investors get too involved in a creator's work.
If only it could have re-established Coppola's career; outside of minor gem Peggy Sue Got Married in 1988, he wouldn't have another Hollywood hit.
The Cotton Club itself had the credentials to be a success.It was based on a screenplay by Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather trilogy, and was produced by the legendary Robert Evans, another Godfather alum. When Evans decided not to direct the film, Coppola was hired. He needed the money; Coppola had spent his own funds to film his last movie, One From the Heart, another box-office dud, and by accounts of the period was close to selling off his Zoetrope Studios to pay the bills.
But that didn't deter the director from pulling out the stops to re-create the period in the early 1930s, when The Cotton Club ruled Harlem. The club hired black singers and dancers to perform for the wealthy white audience, as blacks were not allowed admittance. On top of that, as the movie shows, it was riddled with corruption, as gangsters notoriously went about their business at the club.
Coppola's cast was impressive, Richard Gere played the coronet player who later becomes a Hollywood star, loosely based on George Raft. Diane Lane is the moll of gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar). Schultz violently knifes a colleague in the throat in an early scene after the rival calls the Jewish mobster a kike. He is a psychopath, and hires Gere, who gets an offer he can't refuse in order to survive.
The impressive cast includes - in varying amounts of screen time - Bob Hoskins, Nicholas Cage, Lawrence Fishburne, Lonette McKee, Tom Waits, Joe Dallesandro, Gwen Verdon, Fred Gwynne (formerly known as Fred Munster), Jennifer Grey and Gregory HInes and his brother, Maurice.
It is Hines who steals the show and also divides the movie in two. Coppola spends numerous time filming scenes of the Hines brothers tap-dancing their way to fame on stage, with full dance numbers and blue-tinted sets helping to enthrall the audience. McKee, a Broadway singer, also lights up the stage with songs in a few scenes, surrounded by stunning dancers.
These help establish The Cotton Club as a lightning rod for black entertainment. Hines - who is largely forgotten today after his early death in 2003 from liver cancer - helped ignite tap dancing as a popular form in America, and the movie provides perhaps the best showcase for the art in the modern era.
That's the good news. Gere's romance with Lane and his escape from Schultz's grasp are weak plot points that never really mean much and are foregone conclusions. The movie, for its close to two-hour runtime, never really gets inside the characters and makes them real. Gere is a pretty boy and a musical journeyman, Lane is the usual mobster's moll with a heart of gold, and Remar is, well, just a psycho.
Coppola does try hard, using period jazz-age music over vintage-looking sets and tinted cameras, along with other tools, such as wipes, dissolves and cameos that recall silent pictures.
But the backstory is more interesting. The film was financed by some rough characters, including arms dealer Adrian Kashoggi and promoter Ray Rodin, murdered a few years later in a drug deal gone bad. The film, with Coppola desperately wanting to showcase his finesse, was way over budget.
There are rumors that the financiers was so distressed with Coppola that they took control of the picture, cut out important scenes and thwarted Coppola from finishing the project. It shows on screen. There seems to be missing elements from the final product, with scenes appearing rushed and the pace a bit too breakneck to slow down for exposition. The story is so diluted as to not matter.
The dancing and singing scenes are worth the price of admission. But even then, there is some missed opportunities. The story could have focused on the plight of black entertainers who had to earn their dimes playing before all-white audiences in a segregated New York entertainment scene. What were they thinking, and how did they handle the racism at the club.
Coppola touches on this. A manager at The Cotton Club is outwardly racist, calling his employees by the N-word and even beating them up. Fishburne plays a black pimp who says in one scene that he has no choice but to enter this disreputable profession, as no other work for a black person was available that could help him earn a good living.
But then, the film veers 180 degrees to the lame gangster story. It is way melodramatic and a bit juvenile. There is one scene where a gangster is shot and literally pulls a white tablecloth to the floor as he slumps forward. What happened to Puzo's screenplay is a question to be asked.