The Cotton Club (1984) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Cotton Club is the story of a famous music club in Harlem in the 1920's and early 30's. Talk about a specialty club. In its heyday, only light-skinned blacks were allowed to perform at The Cotton Club, and only white people were allowed to attend. African-Americans with darker skins could do neither, irrespective of their education, talent, or socio-economic status! The film features some truly wonderful the re-creations of the routines, the sets, and the ambiance of the shows of that era. There is probably nobody reading these words who has seen Cab Calloway or Duke Ellington perform, so this film is your best chance to see what all of that was like. If you like the Hines brothers, they do several of their best numbers. In fact, within the 129 minutes of this film, there must be about 60 minutes of performances. It's nearly a musical, and the numbers are spectacular and lovingly recreated.

I love the music.

But the film is messed up.

That's because the cart was before the horse in the creation period. I guess you know that movies normally start with a concept or a script, which is then cast. This one started with a cast member, and the idea that he would play some musical numbers. Richard Gere was then a white-hot property, and could basically write his own deal. He wanted to play a cornet player and perform his own solos. That's it. There was no concept, no genre, not even a time period, let alone a script. The whole pitch was "Gere as a cornet player."

Producer Robert Evans wanted Gere, so he cut the deal, then had to come up with something where Gere could toot his horn. Originally, Evans planned to direct it himself, but after six months of looking for a script, he had spent a ton of money, had an unworkable gangster script in disarray, and no progress toward actual filming. Knowing he was in over his head, Evans called Francis Ford Coppola and begged him to take the project. Looking back on it, Coppola now says, "I didn't want to do (it). It was a nightmare. It was already $25 million over budget, there was no script, and I had Richard Gere starring in a gangster picture, who didn't want to be a gangster." That was only the beginning of his problems. The production proved disastrous. The actual filming lasted 22 months, and the screenwriter wrote 28 different drafts. Before filming began, Coppola was trying to hustle additional backers, and one of them was shot dead! At the beginning of the investigation, Robert Evans was even a suspect in the murder.

The final product is exactly what you might expect, given the history of the project and the order in which the components were added - it's some music looking for a movie. They finally decided that the perfect context for the premise was Harlem in the 20s and 30s, which gave them some great musical numbers, but they never did figure out how to string them together. They finally came up with the idea to create an homage to the corny B&W showbiz movies made in the 30's through 50's. In fact, Cotton Club is basically a 1930's movie, except in color and with more explicit violence. The cinematic devices and the acting styles are 30s-style. Do you remember those symbolic "passage of time and place" montages they used to do in the old movies - the pages falling off the calendar, the railroad train passing through dozens of stations, etc? They did about a half dozen of those in this movie. At times we see the giant numbers "1929", "1930", 1931" walking across the screen. At other times we see the time fixed by the newspaper headlines after the paper stops spinning, or we hear the newsboy shouting "extra, extra, read all about it". I kid you not. All that really happened, and more. Before the stock market crash, there's a stack of dollars growing. After the crash, there's several piles of coins steadily getting smaller. The film even ended with the two lovers pulling away while embracing on the back area of the rear car of a train to California, while the camera focus narrows to a circle around them. All of this is presented without a hint of irony. It is not making fun of the movies of that era. It IS a movie of that era.

The plot doesn't matter. It's just drivel. Plenty of gangsters and movie stars - that's all you need to know. Drive-by shootings, and other battles from the gangland wars, then a few songs, lots of gin, blah, blah. Gangsters and their molls. Jazz singers. Tap dancers. Gloria Swanson. Charlie Chaplin. The usual suspects.  

The acting is weak as well. I have never really thought that Diane Lane was an especially bad actress. In fact, I have been impressed with her in other roles, but she is just awful in this, wooden, and generating no sparks in her affair with Gere. Nicolas Cage was even worse. Cage has had some subsequent successes in the last two decades, but he appeared in this film before he had any chops as an actor (he's Coppola's nephew, real name Nicolas Coppola), and he basically Shatners his way through his part.  

There are some good points besides the excellent musical numbers. 

  • There is some interesting cinematography, with a special period feel generated by an absence of primary colors. 
  • Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne created some interesting minor characters, and James Remar was pretty goddamned scary as Dutch Schultz.

Peter Biskind wrote the following incisive remark about Coppola in "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls"

"In the 90's Coppola went into the wine business in a big way, and turned his vineyard into a tourist attraction. He sits outside at a long wooden table, the padrone, greeting tourists. There is a sadness about him, the sadness of a man who had greatness in him, but only intermittently achieved it."

That paragraph was about Coppola's career output, but Biskind might have written the very same words if Coppola had never directed anything but The Cotton Club. This film has greatness in it, but it appears only intermittently.


DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • no meaningful features



Diane Lane was seen in a semi-transparent top, then later was naked down to her butt-crack in a sex scene with Gere, but she was seen from the rear and side-rear.

male: none

The Critics Vote

  • It was nominated for two technical Oscars.

  • Roger Ebert awarded it the full four stars. "Quite simply, a wonderful movie."

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.2
  • With their dollars ... the film grossed $26 million on a $48 million budget.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. It's worth watching for the musical numbers. When there's no music the film is not so hot.

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