Forming the second film in the Nic Cage/Francis Ford Coppola Nepotism Trilogy, The Cotton Club was released in 1984 to generally positive critical reception. The film currently stands at 75% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The film, however, wasn’t without it’s production woes. Apparently Coppola and the film’s producer, Robert Evans, got along so badly that at one point Coppola banned Evans from set. Not only that but Evans raised funds for the film’s lavish production from Arab arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and vaudeville promoter Roy Radin who was later murdered and, although Evans was never accused of the crime, he was implicated as Radin was murdered by the woman who initially introduced the two, Karen Jacobs-Greenberger. With that kind of tempestuous background, it seems only fitting that The Cotton Club is a sumptuous period drama about the characters surrounding the famed Harlem jazz club of the same name. The film centres around two concurrent plotlines, Richard Gere plays jazz cornet player Dixie Dwyer who is drawn into a seedy world of organised crime after inadvertently saving mob boss Dutch Schultz’s life while Gregory Hines plays dancer Sandman Williams who, along with his brother Clay, get their big break when they’re hired to perform at the Cotton Club. The film opens on the first of many musical numbers, this time at seedy downtown jazz joint the Bamville Club, where Dixie is on stage playing a trumpet duel with another unidentified musician while Sandman struts drunkenly, beer in hand, back and forth across the stage in front of them. I can only assume it’s supposed to be some kind of dance move, as he does bust out some more moves later, but I remain unconvinced as to the impressiveness of the Jazz Strut. The film at this point takes great care to point out to us what hot shit Richard Gere is. Alone amongst the cast, the credits inform us that Gere played his own music and members of the audience comment on just how damn good he is, and that he plays pretty good for a white kid. Mob boss Dutch Schultz (played by the always fabulously-menacing James Remar) is in the audience and while his entourage are striking out with a group of girls at the next table, as soon as they invite Dixie to sit with them he woos them over by yelling, I kid you not, ‘yoo-hoo!’ at them. At this point I can only wish I had a major motion picture this dedicated to telling the world how awesome I am. Perhaps Coppola owed Richard Gere money, lord knows.
Soon after Dutch invites Dixie over to sit with him we see quite possibly the shittest, most half-hearted assasination attempt ever. A man masquerading as police officer toses a lit stick of dynamite under Dutch’s table. However, Dixie spots it and pulls Dutch away as the dynamite goes off with approximately enough force to knock Dutch’s hat off if he’d had it in his mouth. I’ve taken post-vindaloo shits that were more explosive. The would-be assassin then shoots one of Dutch’s hoods and promptly fucks off. If he had a gun, then one has to wonder why not take the extra two seconds to put two in Dutch’s head before running away. At this point Dutch is lying prostrate on the floor, it wouldn’t be difficult. I can only surmise that the assassin was so embarassed by the utter failure of the dynamite to do more than knock over some drinks that he felt the need to flee before anyone recognised him and could tell the world what a shit hitman he is.
After saving Dutch’s life, Dixie escorts home one of the ladies he invited over to the table, Vera Cicero, played here by Diane Lane, who was nominated for a Razzie award for this performance. It’s not hard to see why, she decides to respond to the explosions and gunfire going off 4 feet away from her by cackling and giggling uncontrollably. It’s like a Mormon’s understanding of what it’s like to be drunk. Regardless, Dixie takes her home and proves his virtue by not having sex with a catastrophically drunk Vera who, at this point, is climbing around on the bed and complaining about her ringing ears (hey, it was the 1920’s, sexual politics set the bar a little lower back then).
The next day we get our first introduction to Nic Cage, who plays Dixie’s brother Vincent, as he sits with Dixie in a diner, recounting the events of the previous night which have made the papers. It’s a short scene, and we’re pretty much set on the fact that this is going to be another film that’s entirely too light on the Cage. Afterwards we’re itnroduced to the other main storyline running throughout the film, that of Sandman Williams and his brother Clay as they sit in their apartment eating breakfast with their family. It is at this point that I begin to doubt the ability of the wardrobe department as Clay is wearing his dressing gown with his fedora and I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to do that. Breakfast soon turns into a brief impropmptu dance-off which will be a defining feature of the Sandman storyline. Sooner or later all social situations and problems will be solved by dance. It’s kind of like a racist version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics; rather than entropy, the amount of dancing in a closed system of black people can only increase.
After a brief interlude with a little more Cage, including the revelation that he has been recently married and has a permanent hanger-on called Sam who, for some reason, follows Cage and Gere into their parents house, we go back to Sandman Williams to find he and his brother’s audition for the famous Cotton Club has been successful. As they are leaving Sandman spots Lila, a biracial dancer at the Cotton Club who is able to pass for white. Instantly smitten, he continues the fine Cage movie tradiiton of being bad at courting women by telling her he’s having a heart attack, then following her to work before being thrown out by the club’s racist stage manager. And then we’re back to Dixie, as he plays a gig before being summoned by fantastically deadpan Sol Weinstein, telling him that Dutch wants him to play piano at a private party. The party turns out to be a mob meeting and while Dixie meets Vera again (the singer at the party and now Dutch’s girl) and starts to fall for her, no doubt thanks to her headwear that looks like what happens when a yarmulke fucks a beaded curtain in a rhinestone factory, Dutch meets with charming Cotton Club owner Owney Madden (played by Bob Hoskins), his faithful compatriot Frenchy (played by looming Herman Munster actor Fred Gwynne) and another mob boss whose name I can’t remember and frankly isn’t very important. This is because, minutes later, after the mob boss starts talking trash about Jews, Dutch stabs the fuck out of him and puts him through a table. Like you do.
After this the two storylines intersect, with Dixie taking his mother, Vincent and Vincent’s wife to the Cotton Club, which just so happens to be Sandman’s first performance. Dixie is formally introduced to Owney while Sandman experiences some rather perfunctory racism from the stage manager while Lila does a sexy dance onstage to a woman alternating between operatic high notes and ten thousand frogs on helium. Dutch is at the club with his wife so has entrusted his man Abbadabba to look after Vera. As a brief aside, the people in this film have the best names ever. Dixie Dwyer, Sandman Williams, Frenchy Demange, Abbadabba Berman, Bumpy Rhodes, you just don’t get that quality of nickname anymore. Abbadabba, however, does not live up to the quality of his nickname and demands that Vera roll her tongue for him, whereupon he bursts into uproarious laughter. I guess people were more easily amused before the Internet. Sandman and Clay have their big performance, and thankfully nobody seems to notice that they spend most of it off the beat. Sandman scores a date with Lila and Dixie is told by Dutch that he’s now under Dutch’s employ and that he’s to start taking Vera around and showing her a good time, and he doesn’t have a say in the matter. Which seems to me a kinda shitty way to treat a guy who saved your life.
Sandman’s date with Vera goes surprisingly well, considering that his opening gambit is to beg her to marry him (after probably having spent a total of approximately 30 minutes total in her company), dragging her out of the building and into a dingy backstreet club where once more he resolves a social situation through dance. Apparently you get enough 1930’s black people together in one place and they start solving all their problems with intricately choreographed soft-shoe routines. Y’know, even though the stage manager who doesn’t want Sandman seeing Lila is pretty racist, he kind of has a point. Sandman is impulsive, irrational and kind of bad with women. He’s probably just as worried that he’ll end up in a messy break-up where Lila has to file a restraining order.
Meanwhile Dixie is proving himself to be just as bad with women. After being instructed to escort Vera around town, he takes her dancing. First he tells her all about his past as a gigolo and then the two start slapping the shit out of each other on the dancefloor and throwing each other around. Wary that this sort of thing might find him getting more than a little stabbed up by Dutch, Dixie plays it off as a particularly aggressive tango and, rather than call the police, fellow dancers all start slapping each other like the Domestic Violence Two-Step is the latest craze. Impressed by his woman-slapping chutzpah, Vera goes home with Dutch and boinks him.
Thankfully Dixie is able to break free of Dutch as Owney has arranged for him to screen test for the movies. But as Dixie makes his break for the coast, Vincent becomes even more embroiled with Dutch, starting a war with the local black gangs over the numbers racket and shooting up the Bamville club. And so we see a montage of Nic Cage and his goons hatecriming the fuck out of some black people set to, you guesed it, another lush song and dance number. We also see Sandman pushed to the brink by the tacist stage manager, as he is forbidden from going up on the roof to talk to Lila because, I dunno, the roof is for white people only? After being threatened with a knife, he goes to local black gangster Bumpy Rhodes (played by the always awesome Laurence Fishburne) and demands that he kill him, but Bumpy says he’d never survive a gang war with Owney and advises him to, once again, solve all his problems with dance.
Vincent, on the other hand, might be wishing he could. Following an argument over payment with Dutch, Dutch sends one of his goons to kill Vincent’s right-hand man and perpetual hanger-on. Vincent responds by attempting a drive-by shooting on the goon but proves to be a poor people manager and all the people doing the shooting have such shitty aim that they gun down several innocent civilians. With a price on his head, Vincent decides to kidnap Owney’s compadre, Frenchy, to score some money to get out of town with. Meanwhile, Sandman and his brother Clay (whom Sandman earlier screwed over by striking out on his own) resolve their differences by sitting down and talking it ov-hahahaha, oh God, sorry, no, I can’t do it. They resolve their differences with another musical number. Seriously, by this point I’m starting to wonder if they have some kind of dance-focussed autism.
Back to Vincent and now Owney ropes Dixie into exchanging the money for Frenchy. The exchange goes smoothly and we’re treated to a genuinely touching, funny reunion where Frenchy smashes Owney’s watch to see if Owney cheaped on the ransom, then reveals he’s bought him an even better watch when he finds out he didn’t. Shortly after, Vincent is gunned down as he attempts to flee the city, marking Cage’s exit from the film and first ever on-screen death.
After that, things start to wrap up pretty quickly. Bumpy Rhodes and his boys solve racism by giving the racist stage manager a swirly, Owney and Frenchy decide Dutch is too unstable to have around and we see him whacked as Sandman and Dixie finish out the film with a big musical number together. Dixie and Vera share one last embrace before they never see each other again and the film is done.
Taken a a whole the film is possibly Cage’s first movie that stands up as a reasonably quality film. It doesn’t have Valley Girl’s ungainly, inhuman weirdness, Rumble Fish’s leaden heavy-handedness or Racing With The Moon’s stultifying small-town dullness. However it’s far from an excellent film. It’s an ungainly beast, it feels like someone stapled a Baz Lurhman production to a Mario Puzo script (Puzo was involved with the writing of the film). Half the film is lush, beautifully-shot musical numbers, the other half is trying to be gritty gangster drama, but when half the film’s problems are resolved through dance, it lacks narrative weight and feels as artificial as the mob films Dixie runs away to star in. Is it worth a look? Maybe. Not as an important film in Cage’s development, but as a way to spend a couple of hours, you could do worse, and the film is awfully pretty.