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THE COTTON CLUB

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Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Lonette McKee, Bob Hoskins, James Remar, Nicolas Cage
Director: Francis Coppola
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: MGM/UA
Features: Trailer
Length: 129 Minutes
Release Date: July 10, 2001

“This ain’t real life.”
“What is it then?”
“Jazz.”

Film ****

The Cotton Club is a mesmerizing and facisnating portrait of the jazz era that was sweeping New York’s Harlem in the late 20s, early 30s. Having said that, it’s hard to believe that the movie ended up being one of the most difficult productions perhaps in film history. Next to say Waterworld, which I also like and not ashamed to admit it, this 1984 release presented a rare case of the movie making process being somewhat more intriguing than the actual film itself. This can really hurt a film, even a great one, in its theatrical run, as The Cotton Club resulted in a box office disappointment, and a moderate success with critics. This is unfortunate, because I find the film to be a pure triumph of cinematic craftsmanship, from one of our greatest directors, Francis Ford Coppola, who really pushed the envelope in terms of technical skills. The mixing of upbeat jazz, energetic tap dancing numbers, and unexpected outbursts of gangster violence all blend to create a memorable period piece.

The film tells the tale of musician Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), who is a master of both the cornet and piano. He regularly performs in a New York club, which is run mostly by high profile gangsters of Irish and Jewish decent, most notably the notorious Dutch Schultz (James Remar). When a gunfight breaks out at the club, Dixie ends up saving Dutch’s life, and the mob boss soon has Dixie under his wing and on his payroll, though Dixie would rather focus on his music rather than do anything even remotely criminal. Dutch primarily orders Dixie watch over his mistress, Vera (Diane Lane), who doesn’t care much for Dutch except for the fact that he has enough money to buy her a nightclub of her own, which she indeed wants. Inevitably, Dixie begins to fall for Vera, but the pressure of working under a high profile criminal, along with his hot headed brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) seem to be getting the better of him.

In order to get to supposed greener pastures and away from the crime life, Dixie hopes for a spot in Harlem’s renowned Cotton Club, which features mainly black artists and performers, and yet, blacks are hardly ever let into the club. The club is run by high class numbers runner Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), who insists on giving Dixie an even more ambitious position, which is to run their interest in Hollywood, just as scouts think he has the talent for becoming a movie star.

In addition to this story, there is also the superb subplot of the Williams brothers, Sandman and Clay, portrayed by real life brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines, who are struggling tap dancing maestros who could easily be considered the main attraction at the Cotton Club. As the brothers are dealing with the racial tensions at the Club with the owners, who treat them mostly like slaves, Sandman falls for fellow Cotton Club performer Lea Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee). This notion quickly upsets Clay, who thinks his brother is putting more effort into falling in love than their struggling careers.

To be swept away by the visual and musical artistry of The Cotton Club is near impossible. What makes it even more facisnating is the fact that both Richard Gere and Gregory Hines are credited with their music and dance numbers in the movie. I had absolutely no idea that Gere had the knack for music playing or singing, but Hines has long been a Broadway dancing sensation, and his fast feet are put to staggering brilliance, particularly in the climatic dance number.

A controversy it may have been at the time of release, but The Cotton Club is a wonderful, engaging experience, with excellent directing, passionate performances, and dynamic music sequences. It ranks with director Coppola’s true best films.

Video ****

Considering MGM has never really been known for pulling off a terrific transfer with many of their old releases, the knockout transfer on The Cotton Club is a pleasing surprise. This anamorphic presentation is consistently lively, and clear as a bell, making the wonderfully looking movie even more gazing to the eyes. Without a doubt, The Cotton Club is one of the best transfers of an 80s movie that I’ve ever come across.

Audio ***1/2

I’m very happy that MGM chose to issue a remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital track for their release of The Cotton Club, since they usually seem to release most of their early catalog titles in either 2.0 Surround, or Mono. Since the movie is musically driven, it seemed like the ultimate smart choice, and does it ever payoff. Other than capturing the music of The Cotton Club beautifully, the dialogue is infinitely clear, as are numerous shootouts and background noises. One of the more surprisingly impressive audio tracks of recent memory.

Features *

Only a trailer. I would’ve really like to have seen a documentary on what went on behind the scenes, as well as hear a Coppola commentary track, but then again, Coppola has never offered to do one.

Summary:

The Cotton Club is a movie experience to be seen and heard. If you appreciate the jazz era, and admire Francis Ford Coppola’s unique vision, then this is a definite must see! Congrats to MGM for putting their best into one of their best transfers in recent memory.