How did I get here? By what pixilated logic do find myself in the position of defending Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club?
For years I’ve been pointing derisively at F.F. Crapola as a totem of pseudo-style who plunders the inspiration of better artists, and confuses art with state-of-the-art—seeking to make depth and resonance a function of how many layers he can mix on a soundtrack, how seamlessly he can bleed images together by adapting video technology to the cinema. I inveighed against reviewers who hailed the phantasmagorical bombast of Apocalypse Now as “visual power,” the chi-chi poster art of the Coppola-produced The Black Stallion as “visual poetry.” I complained that even in The Conversation (surely one of Coppola’s most respectable efforts), the central ambiguity was not only, in the last analysis, a cheat, but ambiguity by the numbers (“I could have shot this scene all these different ways” instead of “I shot it right the first time and locked everything in”). I likened the director to his sound-surveillance protagonist in that movie, who was capable of emotional involvement only with the phantoms evoked through his ultra-sophisticated sound system. And about the time One from the Heart emerged ice-cold from the dead air of Zoetrope Studios, most of the press had come to feel the same way.
It’s hard not to see the Zoetrope years as so much wandering in the wilderness of Coppola’s own studio “vineyard.” The best films to wear the Zoetrope logo have borne it as a letter of transit rather than a stamp of manufacture: Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauve qui peut/La Vie, Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, Phillip Borsos’ The Grey Fox, the Kevin Brownlow reconstruction of Napoleon.
The movies actually produced under Coppola’s more or less direct supervision constitute a dishonor roll of dismaying consistency: Wim Wenders’ Hammett, fussed to death with rewrites, recasting, and overweening, self-promoting production design; Caleb Deschanel’s The Escape Artist, likewise terminally interfered with (though that precious project was probably a gone gosling from the outset) and virtually unreleasable; a Black Stallion Returns so spavined, even the family-entertainment audience couldn’t ride it to the finish line.
While flailing as a mogul, the director sought to reestablish his commercial caginess by acquiring two titles by pop classicist S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, and shooting them back to back with Matt Dillon in the lead. The Outsiders was so flagrantly inauthentic in its approach to teen tragedy, the youth market wouldn’t touch it even as a purple-prose extended video; whereas the intriguing Rumble Fish, conceived as “an art film for teenagers,” bewildered teens without a lexicon for its arty codes, and was dismissed for pretentiousness by a now thoroughly hostile reviewing community.
Comes now The Cotton Club and you can fairly taste blood in the air. Tacitly set back to his Godfather I posture of writer-director-for-hire, Coppola helms a Robert Evans megaproduction, three years in the unmaking as a multimillion-dollar budget escalates multi and multi more, backers come and go like thieves in the night, and two of the biggest personal fortunes in Hollywood begin to look more phantasmal than even Hollywood fortunes have a right to do. At a cost of anywhere from 43 to 57 mil (how can figures be so unreal?), the film is pronounced “a probable bomb” before it’s even been seen. Cast members tell tales of what a “heavy” scene the filming was. Producer and director have ceased to speak. All of which compels a lot of linage, and continues to do so as the film is, nominally at least, reviewed.
In this climate, I go to a preview with approximately the same enthusiasm I might muster for yesterday’s news. An astonishing thing happens: I love it! I think the movie’s terrific. Nothing I’ve seen all year has given me a better, busier, more abundantly good time . It’s a three-ring circus of a movie, a juggling act with so many balls in the air that it becomes its own bright constellation.
I like the movie I’m looking at, but I also like two other aspects of the experience. The elements that are clicking so well in The Cotton Club—the marshaling of period color, the celebration of style as vitality, the hurtling telescoping of emotion and narrative—summon up recollections of the blighted, misbegotten Coppolas of the past few years. It’s easier to see, now, what he was shooting for in the grotesque stylization of One from the Heart, the overinsistent atmospherics of Hammett, the failed-ecstatic, rushing-toward-death narrative compression of The Outsiders. Seeing it doesn’t make them into better films retroactively, but they no longer seem so willfully wrongheaded: they weren’t, they aren’t, dead ends.
Another factor enhances my appreciation of The Cotton Club and that is, curiously, that never once in my delight do I take it for A Great Film. It affords no radically new insights into the history and workings of the underworld, undertakes no definitive examination of racism in show business and American society. Its impulses are panoramic, not profound. The Cotton Club doesn’t even aim to supply a comprehensive history of the Harlem jazz spot from which it takes its name. Rather, it’s a bracing new incarnation of an Old Hollywood movie form, in which the titular boite is less a place to be historically documented than a mood, a keynote, a nexus of aspiration and action, impetus and thrust. And the things that, in their limited but vivid way, are so good and satisfying in The Cotton Club are the same things, brilliantly updated, that used to be so good and satisfying in a lot of good-but-not-great Old Hollywood movies.
Oddly enough, the origin of some of these things in The Cotton Club may be literary rather than cinematic. William Kennedy wrote the screenplay with Coppola (from a story by them and Mario Puzo), and I suspect that, besides contributing some fine, tough dialogue, he inspired in Coppola a sense of narrative rigor that the director’s post-Godfather films have crucially lacked. Kennedy’s “Albany novels” about the murderous glamour of old-time gangsterism move to a rhythm of pungent detail and suggestive elision that is echoed in the movement of this film—terse and jazzy rather than slow and operatic in the manner of The Godfather.
The distinctive narrative achievements of The Cotton Club have been signally underrated, if not misnamed and scorned, in most reviews. Certainly there are gaps in the narrative attributable to Hollywood distributors’ post–Right Stuff fear of permitting even an epic movie to run much in excess of two hours. Late developments in the romance between Sandman (Gregory Hines) and Lila (Lonette McKee) are conspicuously truncated, for instance, while that of the black gangster Bumpy (Larry Fishburne) and Sandman’s sister Winona (Winona Smith) is only glimpsed in time to stimulate the symmetrical payoff of the Cotton Club’s racist bouncer (Ron Karabatsos) for his longtime hassling of the principal black lovers.
Still, to suggest that The Cotton Club fails to tell a coherent story is to betray a fundamental obtuseness about the ways in which movies have always told stories best—through movements, angles, faces, personalities, atmosphere, music, color, texture, and velocity—through a shaped vitality that can give us a picture, a motion picture, of a moment in history, a style of life, a special place in the history of the human race’s imagining itself.
In this regard, The Cotton Club is stunningly well orchestrated and choreographed. The movie is not dominated by any one character or set of characters. Coppola and Kennedy play them and their stories off one another, musically, like variations on a theme. The reconciliation of the Williams brothers (Maurice Hines plays Clay), estranged by Sandman’s pursuit of solo stardom, takes place during a forced reunion on the floor of the Bamville Club; it’s echoed immediately in the involuntary reunion of the Dwyer brothers—Dixie (Richard Gere), now a gangster-movie star, and Vinnie (Nicolas Cage), a hunted gangster in real life—during a shadowy kidnap-ransom scene. Sandman’s wooing of Lila away from her secret, possibly white-connected daytime life is juxtaposed against Dixie’s turbulent romance with gangster’s moll Vera Cicero (Diane Lane) under the watchful eye of the gangster’s chief lieutenant.
Like jazz itself—one beat imposed over another, teasing toward temporary congruence and then diverging—the movie at times weaves its storylines together, at other times allows them to separate and run more or less parallel. Often this shift occurs within a single, complex take, the camera trading one set of characters for another, or following a character along one course of action only to be as startled as he when he is snagged and drawn off on another course.
This tactic, deployed sometimes spectacularly, sometimes subliminally throughout the film, achieves apotheosis during the climactic sequence. Within the same four walls, Sandman Williams makes his boldest play for love and stardom; the dynamic triangle of Dixie, Vera, and Dutch Schultz (James Remar) is strained to the snapping point; and Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) and Frenchy DeMange (Fred Gwynne), the elder statesmen of Harlem crime, sit down to cut up the territory with an ambitious young Italian named Charles Luciano (Joe Dallesandro), the wave of the criminal future. Few movies in recent or not-so-recent memory have boasted such a brazenly jampacked climax—and with Cab Calloway (Larry Marshall) doing “Minnie the Moocher” thrown in for good measure!
Sitting there watching, feeling the top of one’s head about to come off, is like being a party to the filmmakers’ own exhilaration. (I visualize Coppola or Kennedy clapping his hands and saying, “Terrific! Now let’s bring Dutch’s wife into the Club and let her throw a jealous fit over Vera!”) When Owney Madden reaches up and tugs away the curtain that has shielded his conference with Luciano from public gaze, and all the rest of the public and private stories appear radiating out from the camera position like a solar system, it’s electrifying.
“Energy” is a much-abused term in contemporary film criticism, yet energy is what The Cotton Club is all about and why it works. The whole movie is predicated on the volatile symbiosis of showbiz and organized crime, and climaxes in a scene wherein the premier talents of the entertainment world and the underworld gleam at one another like supercharged fireflies.
The symbiosis is written into the opening scene. Blowing cornet at the Bamville Club, Dixie Dwyer steps down from the bandstand to accept congratulations from some shady gents passing the evening there. He succeeds in doing what they haven’t been able to do: entice several young women to join them at their table. Dixie also impulsively saves the life of one of the guys when somebody chucks a bomb under his chair. He thereby makes a dangerous friend for life—Dutch Schultz—at the same time that his own attractiveness has drawn Vera, one of the girls, into Dutch’s orbit, and created the opportunity for future, fatal discord.
The Bamville Club scene is followed by an abortive love scene when Dixie escorts the drunken Vera home. The cutting is deliberately elliptical: Dixie helping Vera down the hall/Dixie in the doorway while Vera lurches about the interior of the apartment partially undressed/Dixie standing over Vera as she sprawls abed in her scanties. He doesn’t make love to her (and at this point there is no relationship with Dutch Schultz to stand in the way), but stays the night, on a back-breaking lounge, to keep her company. The elliptic editing not only efficiently nails down the giddy mix of intoxication and emotional circumspection, it also instills an air of frustration and expectancy between the characters that vibrates for the duration of the film.
There are those who find Richard Gere and Diane Lane less than vibrant, and normally I’m numbered among them. One of the pragmatic, good-movie-sense pleasures of The Cotton Club is watching how shrewdly Coppola exploits these two problematical presences while camouflaging their customary liabilities. Gere has no opportunity to indulge in his sensitive-cipher mannerisms; Coppola keeps the character off center and off balance, so that even when seizing his ascendancy over the psychopathic Dutch Schultz toward the end, he seems to triumph through desperate improvisation rather than innate heroism. With hair slicked straight back and pencil mustache, Gere suddenly bears a startling resemblance, especially in profile, to Errol Flynn. At the same time as he evokes this specter of silver-screen outlawry, Coppola ventures to undercut Gere’s own glamour-boy image by frequently shooting him head on, from which vantage, particularly when grinning, he looks like a sleek rat with a bead on the cheese. (Diane Lane even imitates that expression at one point.) And as a sleek rat, Gere has never been more tolerable.
Lane is successfully steered away from the tic-y fretwork of her earlier performances, principally by reducing her to an animate design element within the visual scheme of the film; she’s all Cleopatra cloche and china-doll eyes. To be fair, she does hold her own splendidly torching her way through “Am I Blue?” in a scene where the film’s vectors of passion, menace, and music exhilaratingly converge.
In parts large and small, The Cotton Club thrives on Coppola’s reversion to an Old Hollywood lust for great Faces. James Remar’s Dutch Schultz is a scowling pike out of water, gasping for life and ever ready to take it from somebody else. Julian Beck (of Living Theater fame) is so gaunt, so visibly haunted, his simply being in front of the camera is sufficient to invest Sol the Golem, Schultz’s henchman, with an almost supernatural air of horror, a gangster-movie Nosferatu; Coppola is able to use his freakish angularity as a structural principle, a visual and psychological shock that enables the beginning of one scene to chop into the tail end of its predecessor like an axe. Bob Hoskins (from The Long Good Friday) has no trouble embodying Owney Madden’s cunning and power, but he also twinkles with disarming whimsy—he’s a happy bullet. And Fred Gwynne, exhumed from the elephants’ graveyard of television at its most lamebrained (The Munsters), is sublime as gentleman mobster Frenchy DeMange, wheezing oracular wisdom and trading deadpan patter with the most dangerous men in America.
So am I a Coppola convert? Not exactly. I’m happy that, against all odds, he’s made a marvelously watchable movie, and I’m happy that I have one more marvelously watchable movie to see. I still think he’s what he’s always been: a good, not great, filmmaker who at his best can move and dazzle us with vigor and intelligent concentration. When he reaches for the highest, most elemental uses of style—when Dixie Dwyer catches sight of his own movie-star shadow on the wall while playing a kidnap-ransom scene for real, or when Sandman Williams allegorically tap-dances Dutch Schultz to death during a bravura montage—enigma dies a-borning, and the hollowness of the conceit booms like a tired floorboard.
The film’s elaborate finale, a Cotton Club production number interleaved with a Hollywood happy ending for the long-suffering boys and girls, at once celebrates the essential energy that has defined the film, and frames an apologia: It’s only a movie. That shouldn’t be something to apologize for.
Originally published in Film Comment
Copyright © 1985 by Richard T. Jameson