Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club” (1984)

There is a club in downtown Los Angeles called the Cicada Club, and stepping inside its doors is like crossing the threshold into another era.  Inside these walls, it’s as if time froze around 1944—the art deco architecture is pristine and polished, the live music is appropriately old-timey, and the clientele are impeccably dressed in tuxedos, zoot suits, and WWII army uniforms.  The effect is like stepping into that infamous photograph at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980).   The Cicada Club is a hidden diamond in downtown’s rough, and I would never have known it ever existed if my girlfriend hadn’t been dancing there for the past few years.

THE COTTON CLUB (1984), director Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to his twin 1983 S.E. Hinton adaptations THE OUTSIDERS and RUMBLE FISH, very much plays in the same world as the Cicada Club, so much so that I couldn’t help but wonder if the film directly inspired the Cicada’s creation.

The film marks something of a return to form for Coppola, who was working from a script originally written by the creator of THE GODFATHER (1972), Mario Puzo.   Finding its origins in the oral history of the real-life Harlem club of the same name, THE COTTON CLUB was shepherded by THE GODFATHER producer Robert Evans, who brought Coppola onboard, despite his financial troubles following ONE FROM THE HEART’s(1982) bombing at the box office.  The film’s story dealt with organized crime and corruption in an opulent New York setting, which seemed like a perfect chance for Coppola to recapture some of that GODFATHER charm and success.

THE COTTON CLUB is set in Jazz-era Harlem, 1928.  Dixie Dywer (Richard Gere) is a promising cornet soloist who catches the attention of a local crime lord, Dutch (James Remar) and his emotionally cold flapper moll, Vera Cicero (Diane Lane).  As Dixie’s reputation as a talented musician grows, he soon finds himself the star of a hit Hollywood movie where he plays a ruthless mob boss.   This makes Dutch furious, as he believes Dixie’s performance is a thinly-veiled parody of himself.  When Dixie falls for Vera, Dutch declares open war on his former employee, and the Cotton Club is caught in the middle of the crossfire.

The film boasts several great performances from a committed cast, albeit the characterizations tend to be a little bit on the cartoonish side.  Gere is well-cast as the talented musician at the center of the story, bearing a pencil-thin mustache with suave confidence and righteous virtue.  His dedication even went as far as learning to play the cornet at an advanced level.  James Remar shaved back his hairline to resemble Al Capone in his portrayal of the crime boss Dutch.  The veteran character actor gives his antagonist a crazy-eyed stare, with a ferocious, murderous unpredictability.

Caught between these two men is femme fatale Diane Lane, who is on her third consecutive Coppola collaboration.  A woman firmly of her time, Diane’s Vera Cicero flashes the latest in flapper fashion as she uses her feminine wiles to advance her station in life, ultimately taking possession of a nightclub all her own.  She’s ambitious, feisty, and street-smart, which makes her attractiveness undeniable.

Filling out the cast are a variety of faces, many of which have been seen in previous Coppola films.  There’s his nephew Nicolas Cage as Vincent “Mad Dog” Dwyer, Dixie’s ambitious brother whose impatience is his undoing.  Laurence Fishburne makes his third Coppola appearance as Bumpy Rhodes, an enforcer for Harlem’s black elite.  Tom Waits also pops up as a programmer and emcee for entertainment at the club.  (I think there’s something interesting to observe in Coppola’s aesthetic with his continued inclusion of Lane, Fishburne, and Waits, but I’m not sure what that might be exactly).

New to the Coppola talent fold are Gregory Hines, Lonette McKee, Bob Hoskins, and Jennifer Grey.  Hines plays Sandman Williams, a gifted tap dancer and hopeless romantic, with McKee as the target of his affections.  Hoskins plays Owney Madden, the owner of the Cotton Club with a firm authority over the feuding crimelords that frequent his establishment.  Jennifer Grey, who you may recognize as Matthew Broderick’s vindictive sister from FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986), plays Cage’s young, unmannered wife.

Stephen Goldblatt, Tony Scott’s Director of Photography for THE HUNGER (1983), finds himself in Coppola’s employ for THE COTTON CLUB, which sees a refreshing of talent behind the camera in many major departments.  Shooting on 35mm film, Goldblatt creates a reserved aesthetic that could be read as more of a stylized take on THE GODFATHER’s visual look.  The 1.85:1 frame draws from a brown, black, and red color palette that’s appropriately saturated to reflect the earth-tone patina of Richard Sylbert’s production design (who takes over for Coppola’s frequent Art Director Dean Tavoularis).  Coppola tells the story of THE COTTON CLUB with handheld and steadicam-based camera movements that complement the traditional photography, and he even throws in a few dutch angles for variety.

John Barry, he of James Bond fame, comes aboard as THE COTTON CLUB’s musical maestro.  Using a variety of string, woodwind and brass instruments, Barry’s score evokes the old Hollywood sound of The Jazz Age, which is also reflected in the many live musical performances that run the gamut from ragtime to swing.  There’s a distinct musicality to the film, which lends a unique vigor and firm sense of place and time.

Given its relative obscurity, THE COTTON CLUB is an unexpectedly strong work.  It performed terribly at the box office upon release, but was nominated for two Oscars (One for Sybert’s production design, and the other for editors Robert Lovett and Barry Malkin).  It channels Coppola’s strengths in the organized crime genre, and even has a few moments where it recalls the genius construction of THE GODFATHER, most notably in Dutch’s murder sequence towards the end.   This is further evidenced by Coppola’s collaboration with GODFATHER producer Robert Evans—although the two apparently had a falling out during production and Coppola banned Evans from set altogether.

There isn’t much in the way of personal development as a filmmaker on Coppola’s end.  Despite the inclusion of a few signature elements like double exposed frames, and an experimental sound design (one scene takes a diagetic tap-dancing performance and uses it as non-diagetic score in a parallel cross-cut scene occurring elsewhere), THE COTTON CLUB feels like it could have been made by a number of other filmmakers.  THE GODFATHER influences signify the film as distinctly Coppola-esque, but the slightly cartoonish treatment of the characters and violence suggests instead the vision of a director influenced by Coppola.  Like much of Coppola’s output in the 80’s and 90’s, it was made not because of a genuine ambition, but to reduce Coppola’s significant debt at the time.

THE COTTON CLUB, while not having aged as well as some of his other work, is a strong and underrated film   However, it pales in comparison to Coppola’s groundbreaking 70’s work, which was always going to be a tough act to follow.  But, if anyone can do it, it’s the man himself.

By this point in his career, Coppola was still a young man, with plenty of time to recapture glory—if only he could dig himself out of the hole opened up by his indulgences.

THE COTTON CLUB is currently available on standard definition DVD from MGM.


Producers: Robert Evans, Fred Roos, Silvio Tabet

Written by: Francis Ford Coppola, William Kennedy

Director of Photography: Stephen Goldblatt

Edited by; Robert Lovett, Barry Malkin

Production Designer: Richard Sylbert

Music by: John Barry