Admirers of Francis Coppola’s Godfather trilogy tend to be less enthusiastic about his “other” gangster film, The Cotton Club. While both are more stylistic exercises than critical examinations of organized crime, with their pretense to “Realism,” the Godfather films at least look serious, whereas Cotton Club’s showiness promises little more than design as entertainment. That the glossy Warner Bros. gangster films being evoked were themselves seen as “Realistic” in their time demonstrates how conventional and dependent on fashion Realism is. In The Cotton Club, the hard-edged images, violent action and charging pace of those movies are treated as ends in themselves and the film’s raison d’être.
It didn’t start that way. Producer Robert Evans was inspired to make a film about the famous Harlem night spot by a pictorial history by Jim Haskins. Evading the question of how an essentially black social phenomenon could be dramatized when centered on a white character (Richard Gere’s cornet-playing Dixie Dwyer), Coppola, William Kennedy and Mario Puzo built an elaborate structure around two sets of brothers, one black (Gregory and Maurice Hines), the other white (Gere and Nicholas Cage). Coppola’s camera then twirls around them and the rest of the characters like a hyper-charged ballerina. One minute CC is a gangster film, then a musical. Then it is a romance. No wait, two. And two domestic melodramas. And do not forget the buddy film with club owner Bob Hoskins and his sidekick Fred Gwynne. The results are so complex that Coppola’s flashy technique is necessary just to hold things together.
If you blink, you will miss something. Events and musical numbers occur with such dizzying speed and visual obfuscation that keeping track of what is going on demands riveted concentration. That produces a confused, itchy kind of attention, but one purchased at the price of emotional involvement. It is debatable whether even the characters, much less the audience care whether Dixie and Vera (Diane Lane) stay together, or if the Williams brothers (the Hineses) are reconciled, or whether Dutch Schulz (James Remar) is neutralized. And while the musical numbers could enable the performers to show what was great about the Cotton Club by providing some respite from the pyrotechnics, they too are are mostly chopped to pieces.
The fireworks feel like a necessary distraction from the project’s lack of purpose and conviction. One flamboyant flourish follows another but there is little to take away beyond the glitter. Coming off several failed experimental projects, Coppola may have been trying to show he could still produce a popular success or to prove that his experiments had commercial relevance. To be sure, in small chunks, his twinkling technique is brilliance itself, but after two hours the effects do not add up to much more than the most beautiful disco ball ever put on film. Such eye candy may be indescribably delicious, but is of questionable sustenance.