COTTON CLUB - Francis Ford Coppola
Forgotten Gems from Great Directors
It’s tough for every filmmaker to escape the shadow of Francis Ford Coppola — that
includes the man himself. There’s a two-handed curse that comes when you’re the director of
The Godfather Trilogy and Apocalypse Now, in that your audience respects you and expects of
you. They’re quick to praise the towering works of the past and quicker to tear down those
subsequent films that fail to reach those mythical heights. With that frame of mind, one might
imagine the divided opinions from viewers after walking out of Coppola’s 1984 period crime/
musical, The Cotton Club.
What on the surface appears to be another 1930s set, gangsterdriven crime film from Coppola, reveals itself to actually be a detailed sonic study of musical performance. Set around the famed Cotton Club in New York, historically noted for primarily featuring African-American performers despite remaining a Whites-Only club, the film follows a number of frequent attendees of the lounge and how their paths cross throughout the years - always returning to the club as its focal point.
While there are certainly some entertaining sequences, the narrative chunks are not the high point of the film, nor does Coppola seem to claim them to be. Very early on in the feature, the director dedicates meticulous care in rendering the musical performances of the Cotton Club with lavish set-design, color and camera work. Whole song numbers play out, tap dance routines, skits, and none of them drag. In fact, when the narrative stories are on-screen, I often found myself wishing to see more of them. And Coppola certainly delivers.
The Cotton Club presents itself as a fascinating portrait of culture and a showcase of
different forms of African-American performances in the 30s while never shying from the hypocrisy that the artists aren’t allowed to enter the club themselves.
From this brief overview, I think it’s pretty clear what a standout The Cotton Club is within Coppola’s career and how it might be an ideal time to revisit it. This clearly is true for Coppola himself as in 2020, he released a re-edited version of the film - The Cotton Club
Encore, which I viewed - in an attempt to capture his original vision from the studio version.
The film had a notoriously difficult production. The seeds of the film began when noted
producer and former head of Paramount, Robert Evans, read a book of photographs of the
famed nightclub and wanted to direct the movie himself. Coppola was brought on to do
rewrites when, before production began, Evans decided against directing and sprung it on
Coppola. Coppola, in debt from making One From the Heart, agreed to take the job. The film was financed from a number of… suspect sources. A number of funds were contributed by Vegas Casino Owners, an Arab arms dealer and a theatrical promotor named Roy Radin who was murdered by a resentful drug-dealing friend when they felt they’d been left out of the film’s profits. Extravagance was the name of the game with The Cotton Club, with apparently over 600 people employed to build sets, costumes and create the soundtrack at $250,000 a day.
The film wanted Richard Pryor for a role but he, ironically, was deemed too
expensive. Writer William Kennedy guesses that all-in-all, 30-40 drafts of the screenplay were
written. The results of this lavish spending? A box-office gross of $26 million on a ballooned
budget of $58 million; not exactly the ratio you’re looking for.
While audiences may have been
lukewarm, the film received largely favorable critical reviews with both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert including it on their year’s best lists. What Coppola’s new cut does is apparently pare down some of the slower narrative sequences in order to include more of the exciting musical performances originally cut from the film.
These musical sequences, paired with performances
by Nicholas Cage (in his second film role with his Uncle Francis), Richard Gere (hot off of
American Gigolo, at the height of his coolness), Diane Lane (discovered by Coppola the year
before in The Outsiders and Rumblefish) and Bob Hoskins, make The Cotton Club a fascinating
standout in Coppola’s filmography. And if you’re still on the fence… Coppola apparently spent
$500,000 of his own recutting the movie over the past few years; he might need the help
recouping some of that…