Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Film Review: THE COTTON CLUB (1984, Francis Ford Coppola)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 127 minutes.
Tag-line: "It was the jazz age. It was an era of elegance and violence. The action was gambling. The stakes were life and death."
Notable Cast or Crew: Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, John P. Ryan, James Remar, Nicolas Cage, Gwen Verdon, Laurence Fishburne, Julian Beck, Tom Waits, Jennifer Grey, Joe Dallesandro, Diane Venora, Woody Strode, James Russo, Giancarlo Esposito, Sofia Coppola, Mario van Peebles! Not to mention Kirk Taylor- The Giggler in DEATH WISH 3! Music by John Barry. Cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt (THE HUNGER, STRIPTEASE). Produced by Robert Evans.
Best one-liner: "Blow that bughouse bastard to kingdom come!"

A lot of the knee-jerk negative reactions to Coppola's 80's output either center on the films being too avant-garde (RUMBLE FISH) or too obsessed with duplicating the celluloid past (ONE FROM THE HEART), but those are two key reasons why his 80's films, however flawed, are some of my favorites. Coppola, along with producer Robert Evans (CHINATOWN, POPEYE)- who was at one point banned from his own set due to heightening tensions between the men- crafts a dreamy, extravagant, maudlin, and occasionally brutal atmosphere that lies somewhere between THE PUBLIC ENEMY, 42ND STREET, and THE GODFATHER.

James Remar demands your attention.

Richard Gere and Diane Lane are our stars, but they are essentially muted: instead, it’s the rogue's gallery of supporting players that lends THE COTTON CLUB power: James Remar as 'Dutch Schultz,' at once exuding charm and childishness- and prone to Pesci-style bursts of violence:

Nic Cage undergoing a journey from stilted milquetoast to raving 'Mad Dog Mick' gangster:

Bob Hoskins as a horse-obsessed (!) impresario who lets you know he's not fucking around, even as he calmly arranges some flowers; Gregory Hines as undisputed king of the tap-dance; Woody Strode as a stoic doorman; Mario van Peebles as a hoofer (the same year as EXTERMINATOR 2!); John P. Ryan as a racist, seething Schultz rival:

Larry Fishburne as a no-nonsense Harlem racketeer who's been pushed around by the whites long enough:

Tom Waits as a nettlesome club employee; Joe Dallesandro as 'Lucky' Luciano, the new Mafioso on the block; and bit parts by everyone from Giancarlo Esposito to Jennifer Grey to avant-garde theater pioneer Julian Beck. It's an exquisite, exhilarating world seen through an amber-colored lens:

A classic 30's montage reimagined.

Shades of Vittorio Storaro?

If only the real Cab Calloway had employed Mario van Peebles (not pictured).


garish, ostentatious fashion, waterfalls of spurting champagne, elaborate Art Deco setpieces, and swirling, nostalgic montages- at any moment, this heightened tranquility could be perforated by a stroke of repulsive barbarism or a whirlwind of fame, fortune, and your wildest dreams. This is not a gritty, historical document, per sé- it’s a paean to the endless possibilities and intoxicating escapism of the silver screen, and that’s just the way I like it. Four stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

This is a fascinating mess of a film and it's good to see someone else championing Coppola's 1980s output. RUMBLE FISH is still, hands down, my fave Coppola film of all time.

Despite the presence of so many great actors in THE COTTON CLUB (including a very yummy Diane Lane), this film is a narrative mess. Coppola has said that he would be more than willing to revisit the film and re-edit it. I believe he shot a TON of footage but the studio messed it up pretty bad. The film's checkered production history is the stuff of legend but it's still fun to look at it.

Sean Gill said...

RUMBLE FISH is my favorite, as well- a movie so perfect, I have a difficult time writing about it.

I didn't think COTTON CLUB was quite the narrative mess most make it out to be, but it undeniably bears the stamp of the infighting, lawsuits, murdered financiers, on set battles, and wacky circumstances that seemed to swirl about the film like a cloud of doom. As far as I'm concerned, whenever Remar or Hoskins are on screen, it's gold. And you've got to appreciate the loving (overbudget) recreation of the old school montages and dance numbers. It's funny that he almost ruined himself with such attention to detail (ONE FROM THE HEART), and then with someone else paying the tab, he just picked up where he left off! Good stuff. And it earns a special place in my heart for having so many Cannon Films alumni packed within its gilded frames: Mario van Peebles (EXTERMINATOR 2, RAPPIN'), Kirk Taylor (DEATH WISH 3), John P. Ryan (DEATH WISH 4, DELTA FORCE 2), Laurence Fishburne (DEATH WISH 2), Mark Margolis (DELTA FORCE 2), and I'm sure there's even more.

HK Fanatic said...

I'll have to get around to watching this one soon. "Rumble Fish" is one of my favorite movies of all time and I can't say no to 80's Diane Lane after she stole my heart with "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains."

J.D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.