Monday, February 20, 2017

Short Take: The Cotton Club

The Cotton Club (1984), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, seems to want to be about anything but The Cotton Club. The legendary Harlem nightclub’s roster of entertainers is awe-inspiring: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, and many, many others. It was perhaps the center of American music and dance during the Jazz Age. But the film doesn’t build the story around the club and its exclusively African-American performers. The picture is mainly about a romance between an Irish-American cornet player (Richard Gere) and a young gangland moll (Diane Lane). The intrigues of the period’s organized-crime figures account for most of the subplots. This is perhaps the whitest treatment of African-American subject matter in the history of Hollywood. It’s not even very good for what it is. The leads are dull, and the love story is poorly developed. The gangster material is too convoluted to be interesting. As for the African-American dancers and musicians, they are squeezed in around the edges. They're also a mixed bag. Gregory and Maurice Hines have the largest roles, but their tap routines rarely rise above the mediocre. However, Lonette McKee delivers a fine rendition of the torch song “Ill Wind,” and Honi Coles leads a terrific tap ensemble in a scene set at the Hoofers Club. One may object to Coppola’s handling of those numbers--McKee’s singing is imposed over a montage of gangland killings, and the dancing by Coles and his cohort was unforgivably sliced and diced in the editing room--but the performers still come through. These few worthwhile bits are all this deeply disappointing film has to offer. The large cast also includes Julian Beck, Nicolas Cage, Joe Dallesandro, Laurence Fishburne, Allen Garfield, Jennifer Grey, Fred Gwynne, Bob Hoskins, James Remar, Diane Venora, Gwen Verdon, and Tom Waits. The screenplay is credited to Coppola, William Kennedy, and Mario Puzo. Stephen Goldblatt provided the cinematography. The elegant production design is by Richard Sylbert.

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