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The Cotton Club Encore

by Glenn Erickson Dec 24, 2019

They say you Can’t Go Home Again, but Francis Coppola has pulled a real magic trick — his 1984 gangland musical ended up heavily compromised by outright racism producers that didn’t like the half of the story that favored a black show-biz drama. All the gangster action has been retained in this impressive Encore recut, but with twenty new minutes of performances and backstage intrigues. Gregory and Maurice Hines’ tap dances are extended, and musical numbers have been restored, with the terrific Lonette McKee getting special emphasis. The show was always good, and now it’s much better.


The Cotton Club Encore
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital
Lionsgate
1984-2019 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 139 min. (originally 119) / Street Date December 10, 2019 / 14.99
Starring: Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Gregory Hines, Lonette McKee, Bob Hoskins, Maurice Hines, James Remar, Nicolas Cage, Allen Garfield, Fred Gwynne, Gwen Verdon, Julian Beck, John P. Ryan.
Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production Designer: Richard Sylbert
Film Editors: Robert Q. Lovett, Barry Malkin
Original Music: John Barry
Written by William Kennedy, Francis Ford Coppola from story by William Kennedy, Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo
Produced by Robert Evans, Dyson Lovell
Directed by
Francis (Ford) Coppola

 


Here’s an idea for Martin Scorsese’s next gangland epic — he can tell the behind the scenes story of the making of The Cotton Club!

This year’s The Cotton Club Encore is an exception to the rule that filmmakers revising their own movies is a bad idea. I’m keeping my old MGM DVD of the original cut, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever look at it again. I wasn’t particularly pleased with Francis Coppola’s alterations and extensions to his Apocalypse Now, but from the very beginning we heard that his gangland saga / musical epic was a major compromise by the director. Back in 1984, positive reviews were not enthusiastic, and the negative reviews wanted us to believe that Coppola had surrendered his crown as America’s most creative, commercial director. The Cotton Club also suffered some serious legal problems when it came out, something to do with production funds, that mysteriously put the hex on its reception. Was there some kind of Hollywood backlash against Francis Coppola at the time?

The backlash against Coppola began with an exposé published in Esquire during the filming of Apocalypse Now. The article, from about 1978, was a stack of arrogant-sounding letters where Coppola took James Cameron’s King of the World attitude, proclaiming the show a creative quest that his production staff didn’t properly appreciate. After dressing down his people for their lack of humility, a followup Coppola letter launched into a self-aggrandizing discussion of why he should drop the ‘Ford’ from his name and become just Francis Coppola, as he was originally billed on this film.

The fog of the ‘Francis has lost it’ attitude never fully lifted. Peggy Sue Got Married, Gardens of Stone and Tucker: The Man and His Dream were all given grief for somehow representing Coppola’s betrayal of ’70s filmmaker values. Francis simply applied the stylishness he thought film projects needed. Robert Evans pushed The Cotton Club, a gangster/musical hybrid that was never going to be as historically realistic as The Godfather movies; half of its content is seen through a filter of movieland glitter and musical nostalgia. The real value in the show is its celebration of black talent of the time in both music and dance.

Rumored to be happening for the last twenty years, Francis Coppola’s re-edit of The Cotton Club rebalances a storyline that the moneymen wanted trimmed back in 1984. Some material has been taken out but several impressive scenes, mostly musical in content, have been restored.

The story hasn’t been changed in its basics. Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) is a pianist and cornet player in a 1928 New York club scene run by a volatile mix of Irish, Jewish, Italian, and German gangsters. After witnessing the murder of Irish thug Joe Flynn (John P. Ryan), Dixie involuntarily becomes a private entertainer and errand boy for mob boss Dutch Schultz (James Remar), a power-mad, grimacing troublemaker. Dixie’s crook brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) uses Dixie’s new connection to go to work for Schultz as an enforcer. A further complication is that Dixie has fallen in love with Dutch’s girl, Vera Cicero (Diane Lane), an ambitious flapper who wants Dutch to set her up in her own nightclub. Dixie may find his way out of trouble through the intervention of the magisterial gangsters Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) and Frenchie Lemange (Fred Gwynne), owners of the exclusive Cotton Club. Owney considers sending Dixie out west to run his interests in Hollywood, just as the studios are scouting Dixie as a possible new movie star.

Running parallel to this is the story of Sandman and Clay Williams (Gregory and Maurice Hines) a dynamite dancing team that have just been hired at the Cotton Club, where all the performers are black but the clientele is restricted to whites. Sandman is crazy enough for singer Lea Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee) to pursue her at the expense of his partnership. He also antagonizes the club bouncers, who treat the performers like troublesome animals. Sandman and Clay become estranged, a state of affairs that Dixie, and the other Cotton Club performers consider a tragedy. Even the local Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne) wants the brothers back together again.

The Cotton Club is a big, expensive, sprawling period picture with many subplots, and jammed with interesting actors playing roles based on real personalities of the late ’20s. From what I saw, some of the cameo appearances have been minimized, but we see recreations of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Dutch Schultz, a.k.a. Arthur Flegenheimer, was a real gangster whose story is woven into the movie, along with that of Lucky Luciano (Joe Dallesandro). Diane Lane’s Vera Cicero gets herself a nightclub and uses the line, ‘Hello Suckers!’ as her trademark, making her a transposition of ‘Texas’ Guinan, a real nightclub impresariatrix previously portrayed by Phyllis Diller in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass! Nicolas Cage’s ‘Mad Dog Dwyer’ is really Mad Dog Coll, a short-lived killer whose famous demise is faithfully recreated here. And Laurence Fishburne plays Bumpy Rhodes, a Harlem gangster based on the historical Bumpy Johnson, a black numbers runner who resisted takeover by Dutch Schultz. Fishburne would repeat the role in an MGM film called Hoodlum made in 1997. The Encore version gives us a glimpse of dancers recreating The Nicholas Brothers, an act that must be seen to be believed, in Orchestra Wives and Stormy Weather.

As if that weren’t enough, Coppola’s first-class casting decorates the movie with so many familiar faces, you’d think the studio system had come back. Old timer Fred Gwynne, a great actor who never got out from under his Munsters curse, has the best scene in the movie with then- relative newcomer Bob Hoskins. Allen Garfield, Tom Waits and John Ryan make colorful hoods; the legendary Julian Beck is a sensationally baleful hoodlum. Dixie’s family is fleshed out with welcome bits from veteran Gwen Verdon and fledgling dirty dancer Jennifer Grey. I believe that the extended ‘encore’ cut also restores more scenes with Woody Strode, as the Cotton Club doorman. And this time around, I found out that a waif shot down on the street by ‘Mad Dog Dwyer’s’ men was played by Sofia Coppola.

It’s likely that film critics snubbed The Cotton Club because it is purposely retro, a Hollywood concoction more elaborate than anything Hollywood ever made. It’s a showy, old-fashioned gangster epic that uses all the old material (stock story elements, machine-gun montages) and interweaves them with musical material from the Club’s dance floor. Although Coppola never jumps the line into free-form showoff stylization, as with his later Tucker, he shows he’s going in that direction with his kaleidoscopic ending.

In The Godfather, Coppola added editorial cross-cutting to Luchino Visconti- style historical splendor, by intercutting an old-fashioned Catholic baptism scene with a series of violent mob killings. The Cotton Club uses this editorial construction for one gangland killing, comparing a machine gun to tapping feet. And this Encore version retains the finale that pushes the intercutting trick one step further into Busby Berkeley territory. The last dance number is a part-fantasy that happens simultaneously on stage and in the middle of Grand Central Station. It may not be progressive cinema, but it’s both emotionally affecting and clear storytelling. One gangster goes to jail and another gets escorted out in a coffin, and a romantic couple goes off to Hollywood. And the wonderful Gwen Verdon gets to dance a bit more, too.

Critics dissed Richard Gere as uncharismatic; I resent him less now that I did in 1984. He’s more or less playing George Raft anyway, and Raft was never that expressive, either. The new re-edit likely rearranges more material than I notice; the only thing missing, I believe, were more elaborate introductions of movie personalities visiting the Cotton Club.

 

Is this a case of genre pleasures negating reviewer judgment?  I never minded the gangster storylines that the critics thought were dumb. The old-fashioned visuals are still entertaining, with faces like Bob Hoskins, Allen Garfield and Julian Beck in play. Diane Lane captures well the glamour of a wild girl of the era — she takes the prize for the most alluring on-screen underwear of the decade. And I always thought that James Remar was terrific as Dutch Schultz, a genuinely psychotic menace.

What’s new? The reconstruction of the Gregory and Maurice Hines subplot brings back three entire musical numbers and extends others. The biggest winner is Lonette McKee, who now sings ‘Stormy Weather’ in full. A performer named Jackée Harry shines in a hilarious comedy number. As promised, the ‘too much black stuff’ mandate from 1984 has been corrected. The movie is now a showcase for black talent, and the stylish music tastes of an earlier era.

We’re told that the movie was ridiculously expensive when new, with a budget that ballooned so fast, the original investors sued. Add to all this the veneer of Richard Sylbert designs and all the John Barry music in between the standards, and there was more than enough to keep this reviewer heartily entertained. I enjoyed The Cotton Club immensely when it was new, and like it just as much now.


 

Lionsgate’s Blu-ray + DVD + Digital of The Cotton Club Encore is a real pleasure; for once a top director from the film school era has revised a movie in a way that improves it (restores it, actually). The image looks fine except in a couple of the restored musical numbers — one tap dance looks as if it had to be sourced from a grainy print. As ever, the music score and the many pop standards are delightfully arranged and orchestrated.

Coppola describes Encore as including a half-hour of new material. Since the new cut is only twenty minutes longer, either Coppola is fudging a bit, or he did indeed take out more footage that I didn’t miss.

The new disc includes just two extras. The dramatically slimmed-down Francis Ford Coppola taped a new introduction for the show, explaining some of the politics behind it — in his version of events, Robert Evans brought him on to advise for a while, and he eventually just took over. He doesn’t repeat the (faulty?) word on the street that he took on the job to get out from under some of the crippling debt he’d incurred from his failed Zoetrope Films studio experiment, four years earlier.

 

A Q&A video recorded after the premiere (?) of The Cotton Club Encore is more rewarding than most. James Remar and Maurice Hines accompany Coppola to the stage but Francis does most of the talking. He’s mellow, pleasant and very happy to have been able to restore his picture — which of course has a positive PC angle, ‘correcting’ a racially-based problem of the past. Even for Coppola, it must have been difficult to cut through the legal and financial red tape to allow this to happen.

The re-balanced emphasis in The Cotton Club Encore is visible right in the cover art, which now displays Lonette McKee and Gregory Hines front and center, with Richard Gere and Diane Lane pushed off into the corner.

One reason I remember this show so well, is that its striking imagery was extremely welcome in Orion product montages I cut in 1989-1991. Jumping between RoboCop, Bull Durham, The Lady in Red and this show guaranteed stunning visuals. Last thought: I don’t normally mention disc prices in reviews, but for some reason this new Blu-ray + DVD + Digital disc is being offered on Amazon for a song.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Cotton Club Encore
Blu-ray+ DVD + Digital rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent minus
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Introduction by Francis Coppola, Premiere Q&A video.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English + Spanish (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
December 20, 2019
(6156cott)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.