Movie Review – The Cotton Club

The Cotton Club (1984)
Written by William Kennedy, Francis Ford Coppola, and Mario Puzo
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

It feels like it cannot be emphasized enough, but for Francis Ford Coppola, the entirety of the 1980s and some of the 1990s was shaped by the failure of One From the Heart. Many of his decisions of which projects to take were driven directly by the massive debt he accrued by spending his money on that critical & box office disaster. His old producer Robert Evans (The Godfather films), brought him to The Cotton Club. 

Robert Evans envisioned directing The Cotton Club after being inspired by a photo book of the era. He hired Coppola and author/screenwriter William Kennedy to draft a script. Evans’ most recent film production, Popeye, flopped at the box office, and Paramount pulled out of backing The Cotton Club. Then Evans got busted as part of a cocaine trafficking plot. Evans went to Robert Altman first but was already engaged with other pictures. Coppola was right there, so he took the job because he needed work.

Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) is a musician during the 1930s, working in Black-owned nightclubs due to growing up in a predominantly Black neighborhood. He’s friends with Sandman Wiliams (Gregory Hines), a Black dancer who is also making his way in the show business scene. Dixie accepts help from the mafia to advance his career, leading to a secret relationship with the boss’s girlfriend, Vera (Diane Lane). At the center of all their lives is a massive contradiction, The Cotton Club. It’s a premiere nightclub fully staffed with Black service workers and performers but with a whites-only policy for customers. Throughout this period in their lives, Dixie and Sandman watch the mob grow in power and violently destroy each other, finding some solace in their art.

The tone of the film’s set bleeds into the final product. We’ve seen how a dysfunctional production leads to a poor movie multiple times over the years. It’s true here. An estimated 30 to 40 drafts of the script were written up to the day shooting began. Five drafts were reportedly churned out in a single 48-hour weekend session. Coppola was paid $4 million for his screenwriting, and because rewrites were still happening during production, Evans thought it would be wise to take back that money, claiming that the agreement had not been fulfilled. Coppola rightfully walked off the set and refused to continue with the film until the money was returned to him. We must remember that the filmmaker took this work because the money would help him pay off his debts. It made sense for Coppola to hold his ground over this.

My feelings about the film are that it is a mess. I found the narratively incredibly disjointed with its parallel storylines that sometimes crossover, weaving back on each other. The acting performances are unsure, which is strange because these are very talented actors. It’s not horrendously bad, but they feel clunky at many points. Now the musical performances are a different thing altogether. I was very compelled to watch these, particularly the musical numbers from Lonette McKee, an interracial woman who begins to find her place by stepping out of the chorus line and becoming a headlining singer. She should have garnered more significant acclaim from this film, but I think the production’s other problems overshadowed that.

As I said, casting is not the problem here. Some great character actors play small but pivotal roles in the story. Bob Hoskins is a club owner doing some shady things. Fred Gwynne is a walking fist named Frenchy. James Remar is the mob boss with Dixie under his thumb. Coppola regular Ed O’Ross is here, too, doing decent work. However, I think I was most impressed by Lisa Jane Persky as the mistreated wife of Remar’s mob boss. There was something about her performance that just really clicked with me. She knows what her husband does behind her back, sleeping with other younger women. The way Persky lets this simmer and finally boil over is one of the best parts in a movie that was in dire need of more.

I’m sure The Cotton Club has its hardcore fans; you can find that in varying numbers with any film ever made. I don’t see the movie as a poor mark against Coppola, but instead as an example of the pitfalls of indulgence in 1980s American cinema. Robert Evans was steering the ship, and the failures of this movie fell squarely in his lap. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you watch this unless you are a completionist or writing about Coppola during this period. I did not enjoy my viewing and had one of those experiences where you can feel the minutes slowly passing, desperate to reach the end credits so I could move on with my life.

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