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The Cotton Club

Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club is not a good movie, but it is a damned interesting one, and the aggregate of its diverting elements is just enough to surmount the failure of its pale narrative and wooden dialogue. Richard Gere stars as Dixie Dwyer, a white cornet player in prohibition Harlem who finds himself in the uncomfortable position of Gangster's Pet after inadvertently saving the life of brutal bootlegger Dutch Schultz (James Remar). Thus starts a dangerous, conflicted romance between Dixie and Schultz' mistress (Diane Lane), which is one of several plot lines running through this almost-Altman-eqsue pastiche of life and music revolving around the storied Cotton Club, its all-black performers, and its rich, all-white audience. It's no surprise that Coppola and fellow screenwriters Mario Puzo and William Kennedy used as inspiration a picture book chronicling the Cotton Club's heyday, as the production design and other visual elements are exquisite, but the stories are as thin and the characters as underdeveloped as those you might find in, say, a picture book. The dance numbers are plentiful and impeccable (all the music is by Duke Ellington) and deep casting goes far to mask the lagging drama, with Gregory Hines (and brother Maurice), Bob Hoskins, Fred Gwynne, Lonette McKee, young Coppola-nephew Nicolas Cage, Gwen Verdon, Laurence Fishburne (as Bumpy Rhodes — a role he would reprise in 1997's Hoodlum), Tom Waits, Jennifer Grey, Woody Strode, and the inimitable Julian Beck ("I never had no muddah. They found me in a garbage pail!"). Rather than being the quality of film that earns devoted fans, The Cotton Club is special as a curiosity, as the risky output of a great director, and, partially, for its scandal-ridden, over-budget production. Coppola is said to have spent the entire $20 million budget in only the first week of shooting, and the film was further plagued by drugs and the personal problems of idiosyncratic producer Robert Evans. Although this MGM DVD is bare bones, there are stories of a previous disc with loads of unseen footage having gone through production (at Renegade Productions) only to be squelched by lawyers at Orion Pictures. Fans of the film for its historical value should be aware that this other material may finally come to light — and if there' s a second disc, the film itself could use some restoring anyway. MGM's DVD release features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), although the source-print has washed-out blacks and shows some wear at reel changes. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, however, is excellent. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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