As I said to my lovely fiance’ when it arrived in the mail…I’ve been waiting a helluva long time for THIS one!
Yeah, yeah…I know. The Cotton Club is not a very well-regarded film in history’s eyes, I fully acknowledge that. And with good reason. I consider the 1984 Theatrical Cut to be a clumsy, soulless attempt at a vanity-piece film with some damn fine cinematography, and a lavish production detailing a time period I particularly love. But it was never a film that I could take seriously, given that the characters, in many scenes, simply came off as exactly what they were – actors playing expensive Dress Up, with the hammy dialogue and acting to go along with it, in a poorly paced narrative that flat-out lacked focus. What’s even more odd is that this expensive and notorious mis-fire is a bizarre anomaly on director Francis Ford Coppola’s impressive filmography, particularly since it was preceded by some undeniable classics, being The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part 2 (1974) and the still-amazing Apocalypse Now (1979), along with two notable S.E. Hinton adaptations in ’83 (The Outsiders and Rumble Fish). He went from THOSE…to THIS. Now, in all fairness, he had reluctantly stepped in for producer Robert Evans, when Evans ran into issues in the pre-production phase while planning to direct the film himself, only to step away from the Director’s Chair late in the game. And, like Apocalypse Now, the behind-the-scene’s shenanigans are the stuff of dark Hollywood legend and it’s a friggin miracle a movie of any kind emerged from that shit-show. It’s just too bad that the version they originally went with…is the version they went with.
In spite of how much of a failure this movie is…I kinda love it, and always have! It’s a bloated, over-indulgent mess…and there in lies a significant chunk of its perverted charm. I knew that part of the Production bullshit involved a final Studio (or more accurately, Shareholder) edit, as opposed to Francis Ford Coppola’s original submitted cut, so I always acknowledged the possibility that a more cohesive and satisfying version probably languished in some refrigerated vault somewhere, most likely never to be seen due to the lack of regard for the flick in the years since it’s release. Apparently, it was a Betamax copy of that original workprint version that Coppola found that pushed him to go back and revisit The Cotton Club, with an eye on righting the wrongs to the tune of $500 000 USD of his own cash for a new high-def restoration. When I first got wind of this, it was because this new ‘Encore’ edition had been screened at the Tulleride Film Festival in Colorado in 2017, and had gotten some very favorable reviews from the tiny scattering of cinephiles who were lucky enough to catch it. But then, I also heard that there were some rights issues (or something to that effect) pertaining to distribution and yaddah yaddah yaddah. So it seemed unlikely that this coveted new version would see the light of day, unlike Coppola’s three different versions of the excellent Apocalypse Now (haven’t seen his Final Cut yet, but love the Redux); a film also known for it’s epic production woes and troubled original release.
That was until two weeks ago, when I unexpectedly stumbled upon The Cotton Club Encore Blu ray on Amazon, completely by happy accident!
For those who don’t know – The Cotton Club takes place in Harlem in the late 1920’s / early 30’s, focusing on the famed establishment and the various characters within its orbit, some cut from Real Life and some entirely fictional. A talented cornet / piano player named ‘Dixie Dwyer’ (Richard Gere) accidentally falls in with psychotic gangster ‘Dutch Schultz’ (James Remar) after he saves ‘The Dutchman’s life during an attempted gangland hit. The two of them then pursue / lust for an ambitious flapper named ‘Vera Cicero’ (Diane Lane), who has plans for one and confused feelings for the other. As this is playing out, we also meet brothers ‘Sandman’ and ‘Clay Williams’ (Gregory and Maurice Hines), two aspiring tap dancers from Dixie’s neighborhood who encounter a rift after they find success performing at the Cotton Club, while ‘Sandman’ pursues a gorgeous and determined song bird named ‘Lila’ (Lonette McKee). There’s also gangland intrigue and oddly brutal violence scattered throughout, matched by some top-notch musical numbers. And in a nutshell…that’s The Cotton Club.
I’m such a nerd…I actually got butterflies in the gut when I tore the packaging off this the other night. I was so excited by the prospect to maybe get to FINALLY see the GOOD movie that the definitely sub-par Theatrical Version had always hinted at. So, after I had given my Better Half my rudimentary explanation for my strange fascination with this flick, I grabbed my notepad and got scribbling as the show got showing.
Here lie those scribbles…
–Gone are the intercut credits. In the Theatrical Cut, the old-timey Opening Credits (which I love) are intercut with flashes of female dancers mid-routine onstage. Now, the credits just run as one continuous sequence…and the story then begins!
–Great new first scene! Dixie + Sandman. The Theatrical Cut immediately followed up the credits with a period-appropriate ‘irising in from black’ on a nonsensical close-up of a bottle of booze smashing on the sidewalk, which I never understood. This led straight into the abrupt intro scene at the Bamville Club (maybe opening the flick at the movie’s namesake might be a good idea, just sayin, Theatrical Cut!). The story takes place smack in the thick of Prohibition, so I never understood why someone would be casually strolling along (as all the various passing feet we see are doing) with what looked like a half-bottle OUT IN THE OPEN, only to drop it and continue on like it was nothing. I know, knit-picking. But still. But back to the scene – I like how it’s now established that A) ‘Dixie’ is just back in town after his latest band broke up (never covered before), B) ‘Sandman’ is into the illegal numbers racket (never knew what he did beyond tap dancing), and C) they knew each other as more than just a quick greeting while passing on the street (like in the Theatrical cut). They meet outside The Cotton Club while ‘Dixie’ is pestering the black doorman about his discrimination of other ‘colored’s, as per the club’s fucked up Code of Conduct. Black entertainment and service, white patrons only.
Just putting it out there – RACISM IS FUCKING STUPID
(steps down from soap box)
Already, much welcome connective tissue is already being added to what I already know narratively, right off the bat.
–Transfer looks amazing! Mr. Coppola…that was $500 Gs well spent, sir! Even if this ‘Encore’ cut didn’t exist, I’d still want a Blu ray copy of this title, as I REALLY like the visual presentation, regardless of the other obvious flaws. Very lush and detailed, very much deserving of a top-notch restoration, and that’s what it looks like it got. There is some film ‘grain’ in some scenes, but that has to be expected. Other shots are impressively detailed and clean, despite being sourced from merely an Answer print on film and not the original negative elements, which ALWAYS garners the best visual results. We even noticed an interesting scar by one of Diane Lane’s beautiful eyes that I’d never seen before!
–Thank Gawd! The gunshots! Ok, now this is one of those scene details that ALWAYS irked me, going back to the very first time I saw this flick, way the hell back when. There’s an early scene where ‘Dixie’, while sitting at ‘The Dutchman’s table with ‘Vera’, tackles ‘Schultz’ as a pair of ‘Flynn’s thugs, disguised as uniformed cops, try to take him out with a stick of dynamite tossed under their table. In the fray, gunfire is exchanged as the would-be assassins make their escape. And the sounds of the gunfire were PATHETIC! It seriously sounded like the Foley or Sound artists just took the day off and left the Production Sound instead. The handguns in this scene all have a sad, flat *Pop*ping sound, with no menace or bite. It’s only 3 gunshots…but so unimpressive, given the larger-than-life presentation, and the finesse that Coppola had shown previously with the Sound Designs for The Godfather films and, especially, Apocalypse Now. At least they turned the volume up and gave the gunfire some effective bark. I smiled at this (Yea, I’m weird).
–Yep. Still some iffy acting. I guess nothing was going to erase what’s simply there, and what’s there is some very questionable performances from people who we’ve all seen do MUCH better, both before and after this was originally released. Aw well…
–Great new Diane Lane ‘intro’, elevator. We do first meet ‘Vera’ in the company of her other flapper friends at the Bamville Club at the beginning, where she nearly gets killed, this is true. But in this new cut, we get a cute moment of ‘Vera’ alone in an elevator on her way up to ‘The Dutchman’s party, clearly excited as she counts the floors, probably symbolizing her ambition as she heads for the ‘top’. There was something girlishly giddy about it, which was a good reminder that ‘Vera’ (like Lane herself, if I remember correctly) was still just 18 years old.
–Woah! New gore! Unexpected. One of the more infamous scenes from The Cotton Club features ‘Dutch Schultz’ (James Remar), despite having been forced into a truce with a rival Irish gangster ‘Joe Flynn’ (John P. Ryan) only moments earlier by Cotton Club owners / gangsters ‘Owney Madden’ (Bob Hoskins) and ‘Frenchy Demange’ (Fred Gwynne), loses his temper and brutally murders the man mid-party with a carving knife to the throat, right in front of ‘Dixie’ and ‘Vera’. Well, holy shit…I thought the Theatrical version was pretty harsh, but damn…we get at least two new shots – one flash of the blade stabbing straight into the throat under a shocked ‘Flynn’s face and then another of the blade in close-up, now protruding out the back of his neck as the grievously wounded gangster slams down onto a table top, splitting it in two. Blood…everywhere. No question…a brutal scene now even more brutal.
–Still a damn fine tap number by Gregory and Maurice. Gregory and Maurice Hines were actually very accomplished and talented tap dancers in Real Life and they get the chance to show off several times throughout the film…and it’s great to behold! But their first number is a slick piece of foot work and I’ve always loved it.
–Fuck! Remar is an ugly bastard! Hicks? Seriously?! Ok, not trying to be a petty asshole here but c’mon, they do a fine job making his take on real-life mobster Schultz repellent, with puffy wet lips and weird facial ticks. But to think that James Remar, one year after The Cotton Club’s release, would be on set in the UK playing ‘Corporal Dwayne Hicks’ in The Coolest Movie Ever Made, Aliens…for several days, as he was quickly fired for either drug abuse or a work permit issue, and was mercifully replaced immediately with the much more striking Michael Biehn (The Terminator), who made that character fucking awesome and legendary. Just don’t bring up Alien 3.
–SO much new material, extensions that flesh out the story. This flick is a cinephile’s wet dream, as there seems to be a whole ton of little elements added back in, often just as scene extensions that give more detail or characterization, on top of all the new full scenes cut back in.
–Wow! So much good stuff chopped in Theatrical. Gregory tap serenade. Again, as you can see, I keep encountering cool new shit as the 139 minute run-time unspools. There’s a new scene extension where ‘Sandman’ goes to meet ‘Lila’ at her church group and winds up performing a charming tap serenade to try to impress her. It works.
–Still love the Hoofers Club tap off! Back in 1984, breakdancing was huge. I should know, I was 7 at the time and was breakdancing my little ass off (wasn’t too bad either, actually). Point is, stylish competitive dancing was very much in the social consciousness at the time of this flick’s release, so I’m sure someone must have applied some of that concept to what is one of my favorite scenes in the whole damn movie and that is the out-of-the-blue tap dance competition that breaks out when ‘Sandman’ takes ‘Lila’ to the old school, Men Only club of old black performers. I smile every time I see it.
–Too bad about some of that acting. Wooden and stilted. Yep, there it is again. There’s no escaping that The Cotton Club simply boasts some hokey and unconvincing performances. But as I alluded to earlier…for me, that’s also somehow become part of its charm.
–Eyeballs on eyelids. Now I could be wrong…but I certainly don’t remember this strange little scene in the Theatrical cut. It opens with ‘Vera’ at a mirror applying make up as ‘Dixie’ looks on, but her eyes look weird and fucked up. Then she opens them! Yes…she had goddamn eyeballs painted on her eyelids! Such a random little scene.
–‘Stormy Weather’. Great new scene. One of the sequences I kept coming across mention of when researching this version was an impassioned musical number by Lonette McKee called ‘Stormy Weather’…and it’s amazing! Coppola was smart in that he showed admirable restraint and for the majority of the number, simply held the shot on McKee as she belted out ‘Stormy Weather’ like a champ. Legitimately impressive!
–Cool seeing ‘The Dutchman’s operation. Previously, we only got vague talk of ‘Schultz’s involvement in organized crime in New York, but here, we actually see him and his minions working the ‘numbers’ game, the mob-controlled lottery on the streets, just like the man did back in the day.
–Can’t stop smiling! ‘Clay’ and ‘Sandman’ reunite. I found this happening a few times, but I would actually catch myself grinning like an idiot as this new version of The Cotton Club played out. The scene in question, where the estranged siblings finally bury the hatchet with a lively duo tap number, is one such time where I caught the grin plastered across my silly mug.
–Cool Cab Calloway scene. New. Or…is it? They have a very convincing Cab Calloway (legendary jazz band leader) impression, right down to the crazed conducting moves and floppy hair.
–Some great new dance numbers! I feel like I’m starting to repeat myself now but there is just so much solid new material that I’ve never seen. My fiancé and I were saying that the performers must’ve been PISSED when they finally saw the cut released in theatres, back in the day. So much hard work, left strewn about the Cutting Room floor. At least now, some 36 years later, those performances and productions can now be seen and enjoyed as originally intended, only in glorious high definition (so very worth it).
–Still love the melodrama of ‘Schultz’s assassination. This is one area that is mostly historically accurate, at least where the mechanics of the murders are concerned. But I always liked how Coppola intercut ‘Sandman’s solo tap number with the lead up and subsequent shooting deaths of ‘The Dutchman’ and his goons at the Chop House by ‘Lucky Luciano’s (Joe Dellasandro) Murder Inc. hitmen, working in conjunction with ‘Schultz’s former employers ‘Owney Madden’ (Bob Hoskins) and ‘Frenchy Demange’ (Fred Gwynne).
–Hell yeah! That’s what I was hoping for! Far better!! Right there. I think that sentence caps off the ‘scribbles’ portion of this write-up nicely.
To sum this whole review up, I first have to simply say that I’m VERY satisfied with this newly restored version of a previously and deservedly maligned film that allegedly had so much working against it, both during Production and following Release. Francis Ford Coppola was robbed of the chance to get the best product out there by the greed and short-sightedness, not to mention blatant racism, (a Reaction comment left following an early screening notoriously mentioned ‘Too many black people’ as a Negative, resulting in tons of great material being chopped out, the ignorant pricks!) of the dumb-ass Shareholders who envisioned nothing more than a Box Office win, with Coppola’s name attached to it as a draw based on his previous successes. It’s terrific (at least for me) that he took it upon himself all these years later, rolling up his sleeves to get back to the original vision he had cultivated back in ’84 for all who might be interested to see, with a really nice restoration and remastering, not to mention whatever editing was needed to get his original cut back on track. And it really is the best version, FAR outdoing the weak-sauce of the clumsy and confused Theatrical cut. Is it now a perfect film? Hell no, unfortunately. There are undeniably some elements that just don’t work, mostly pertaining to certain performances and character relationships. But this new ‘Encore’ cut puts it’s boot on the head of the Theatrical version and smashes it into the ground, in my opinion, especially where the Narrative is concerned. I found it to be simply a far more satisfying experience, on par with what I had always hoped for. With all that said and done, I’m not sure who I should be recommending this new version to…though I am most certainly recommending it! It’s my gut feeling that this release fits into a very small niche of film lover’s tastes and that only true Movie Nerds like myself will fully appreciate The Cotton Club Encore for what it is. And what it is, is a lavishly produced period piece boasting some gorgeous cinematography, some solid dance numbers (some of the restored sequences are genuinely amazing, IMO), some deliciously over-the-top gangster intrigue and violence, and a helluva Main cast, supported by the likes of Nicolas Cage (one of his first flicks, handy that ‘Coppola’ is Cage’s real last name, if you get my drift), Laurence Fishburne (returning to Coppola’s fold after his debut in Apocalypse Now four years earlier), Tom Waits (who would be directed by Coppola again 8 years later in Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Julian Beck (the creepy bastard from Poltergeist 2, just as fucking creepy here as the ghoulish henchman ‘Sol’), Jennifer Grey (appearing in this the same year as the classic Red Dawn) and Diane Venora (who Gere would reteam with in ’97 for The Jackal). If you’re a fan of Coppola’s work, or gangster films in general, and have ever considered checking this title out, even out of morbid curiosity, forget that there even is a Theatrical version and seek out this gorgeous new cut. It’s easily the better, more satisfying film experience and I feel that it deserves to be seen and embraced, even just to appreciate Francis Ford Coppola’s efforts to guide a seemingly doomed project to some semblance of success, both in 1984 and 2017. The Cotton Club will NEVER be considered a Box Office hit…but hopefully future generations will find this vastly improved version and accept it as the TRUE cut of the film. It deserves that much.
“Gentlemen, in the next room is the best food, drink and pussy available at any price in New York. I suggest you take a sample of these things and try to remember that this is why we work so hard. To live the way kings and princes live in this world.”
– ‘Owney Madden’ (Bob Hoskins)