In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “And even at his worst, Coppola is incapable of doing bland or boring. When he fails, he fails gloriously.”
“In the next room, gentlemen, is the finest food, drink and pussy in New York at a price.”
The Godfather is one of the first legitimately great movies I remember loving. There had been plenty of movies before then that I was obsessed with, watching them over and over. But they were kids’ movies, dumb comedies, mindless actioners and whatever blockbusters I got to see at the time. But The Godfather is the first movie I can remember that made me think of the person behind it, the artist who made the creative decisions that resulted in this masterpiece. Because of that, I have found it hard to fault Frances Ford Coppola in the years since. I find it hard to admit that he could ever make anything truly terrible. Which is why it’s taken me so long to get around to The Cotton Club. I didn’t want to not like it.
In 1920s Harlem, the Cotton Club is the hottest night spot in New York. Frequented by gangsters, politicians, show business power brokers and everyone who wants to gain the attention of gangsters, politicians and show business power brokers. Local coronet horn player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) is happy to remain a horn player, but when he inadvertently saves the life of mid level mobster Dutch Schultz (James Remar), he starts to get a taste of the roaring 20s at their height. Which is great news for Dixie’s brother, wannabe mobster Vincent (Nicolas Cage).
Also coming through the doors at the Cotton Club is Dutch’s girl Vera Cicero (Diane Lane), who has a chemistry with Dixie that no one can ignore. While on stage are the Williams brothers, Sandman (Gregory Hines) and Clay (Maurice Hines). Frustrated that black entertainers bring in all the clientele at the Cotton Club, while black patrons are not allowed, they fuel a B plot about the blatant discrimination of the day. All the while, club owner Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) and his intimidating right hand man Frenchy (Fred Gwynn) pull all sorts of strings in the background.
At first, I found the stories of The Cotton Club so familiar, I started to wonder if I had actually seen it before. But then I realised why, from its time setting, to combination of stories about gangsters and race relations, with a swanky nightclub serving as the centre of a lot of the action, there were more than a few things in common between The Cotton Club and the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire. Which also made me realise the movie’s biggest weakness. Boardwalk Empire had five years of serialised TV and 60 odd hours to tell these stories. The Cotton Club tries to cram it all into a little over 120 minutes. And it never comes close to serving any of these stories as much as they deserve.
But, in the end, this is still a Frances Ford Coppola movie. And even at his worst, Coppola is incapable of doing bland or boring. When he fails, he fails gloriously. And even then, he’s still a master technician and craftsman. So while the stories and characters of The Cotton Club never really grabbed my attention, the sets, costumes, camera work and production design were almost enough to make up for it.