Review: The Cotton Club

Blu-ray & DVD: The Cotton Club (1984)

The original screenplay by Mario Puzo was passed over for a rewrite by Francis Ford Coppola who also directed. With the Godfathers, Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish under his belt, The Cotton Club was deigned to be a sure fire hit.

It tells the tale (based on a coffee table picture book owned by producer Robert Evans) of ‘The Cotton Club’; a 1920s gangster-owned Harlem club catering to rich, white-only clientele with black entertainers.

Richard Gere stars with his usual intense blinky gaze and stoic ‘goodness’ despite being surrounded by evil men. Apparently he learnt to play the cornet for the part and looks wholly convincing, but we do forget Gere’s heritage began in musical theatre playing the original Danny Zuko in Grease. He begins working for the main gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar) and instantly falls in love and into bed with Schultz’s girlfriend Vera (Diane Lane). Gere is convincing as a blinky hustler who remains uncorrupted. And to  emphasize his basic humanity, he is given a younger brother Vincent ( a not mad YET, Nic Cage) who takes to crime and ends up working for Shultz who ends up killing a couple of kids in a senseless shootout and is himself executed in a bloody phonebooth ambush a la Sonny and the tollbooth.

Diane Lane plays the sultry blonde moll as a spikey but annoying good time girl, rubbing Gere’s nose into a relationship with a more powerful Shultz. Amazingly mid-point, Gere becomes a Hollywood actor starring in Cagneyesque gangster films, which seems like a plot point that was dropped in to give him something to do other than blink.

As for the black actors (let us not forget, the Cotton club had black performers) Lonette McKee plays the Lena Horne-like role of Lila Rose Oliver well and there is a subplot of her attempt to pass as white in order to get to Broadway while her erstwhile lover Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) does a few dances but its ultimately wasted.

The film, produced over a period of several years shows the wear and tear of rewriting, and extensive editing. There are too many loose ends, unexplained plot developments, and it all feels very rushed. But then when you see the name Coppola on a film, you do expect greatness, while this is more a soap opera.

Review by Tina (co-host of 60 Minutes With) from a disc kindly supplied by Umbrella Entertainment.