- Movie Rating -

The Cotton Club (1984)

| December 14, 1984

I arrive at Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club with a lot of mixed feelings.  I don’t love it and I certainly don’t hate it.  There is a very uneasy balance of both.  Here is a movie with so much going for it, so many things that have overcome a very troubled production history.  And yet, it’s a wildly uneven film that can’t quite get itself together.  Its focus is largely in the wrong place.

On the up-side, this is a gorgeous production on nearly every technical level.  It is the best-looking film that I’ve seen in a long time, the costumes, the cinematography, the production design, all of it go into making a movie that is a feast for the eyes.  It takes place over several years throughout the 1920s and 30s and involves many players in and around Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club, which means that the movie is wall-to-wall with great music and a lot of great energetic musical numbers.

On the down-side are too many characters, too many distractions, too much of the movie that deals with things away from The Cotton Club.  Among them is a young white coronet player, Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) and how he falls into the good graces of notorious mobster Dutch Shultz (James Remar doing a sloppy Edward G. Robinson impression).  Shultz gives him a job, but immediately the two are at odds over a showgirl named Vera (Diane Lane).

To be honest, I was not interested in any of this.  Much of the movie is taken over by a lot of mobster mayhem involving the disintegration of ties between Shultz and the crime boss Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) that often feel like a parody of The Godfather.  Plus, the relationship between Dixie and Vera isn’t developed beyond the fact that both are beautiful (and white) and that Dutch stands between them.  It is curious that (and I am pointing fingers) that the movie purports to center on an important hub of African-American culture but then we end up following a cast made up largely of white actors.

I didn’t come for this.  I came for The Cotton Club.  This is a legendary club that hosted some of the greatest musicians, singers and dancers of the 20th century; Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, The Mills Brothers, The Dandridge Sisters, Lena Horne, Billie Holliday, Fats Waller, Chick Webb and many, many others, but where are they in this movie?  Some are seen in the background or mentioned in dialogue or never mentioned at all.  This was the heart of African-American culture in the early years of the century, but the movie never wants to acknowledge their contribution.  It gives the bulk of the movie to the white characters dealing with things that have nothing to do with The Cotton Club.

The one relationship that should be at the center is between two brothers, Sandman and Clay Williams (Gregory and Maurice Hines) whose high-energy act makes them stars, but whose relationship is undone by a misunderstanding.  They are the heart of this movie, a great love story that contains a scene of reconciliation that, I’ll admit, choked me up.

I wish the movie was really just about the brothers and the world of The Cotton Club.  I came in with a lot of curiosity.  How did this club function in a world of segregation?  Of mobsters?  Of crooked cops?  How did the performers keep on dancing in a club that could easily, by force or by pen, have been swept of all black influence and talent?  Where is that story?  The Cotton Club is a movie with too many distractions, too little of what this club was really all about.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1984) View IMDB Filed in: Drama