Disclaimer – Review based on the Encore Edition.
When it comes to period recreation, Francis Ford Coppola had the clout to be retroactive back to 1930’s Harlem with painstaking authenticity. The Bamville Club and the flappers aren’t just tinseled scenery; they’re components to Coppola’s Dionysiac, swooning tribute to the buzz of jazz music.
With plumpers in his cheeks, James Remar is the dreaded gangster Dutch Schultz whose existence is is constantly threatened by sticks of dynamite. It’s a hazard of the racketeering occupation. Rather than foaming at the mouth, Bob Hoskins depicts proprietor Owney Madden with an aura of flower-arranging delicacy.
Despite the nickname of “The Killer”, Hoskins is the becalming source for a truce between embattled factions. It is short-lived though when Dutch viciously stabs Joe Flynn (John P. Ryan) in the neck after prejudicial, antagonistic comments about the Jewish and African-American community. The murder itself is somewhat hobbled by the rubbery, non-emotive head prosthetic for Ryan.
Even in morning slippers, Gregory Hines’ tap-dancing skills are extraordinary. As part of the restoration process, most of the lines are now redubbed to remove the din of stage and street echoes. Still several passages are untenable to hearken and require subtitles (such as the faux-introduction between Dixie (Richard Gere) and Owney which is ironic since Dixie has already been hired on retainer by Owney). The film is so star-studded that many lionized actors are briefly curated such as Mario Van Peebles, Tom Waits, Fred Gwynne, Jennifer Grey and Laurence Fishburne.
Frankly, the underworld segments are diminuendo and subaltern next to the pageantry on center stage. Thankfully, the film is a multi-character ensemble and it behooves the viewer to not get affixed to one of the intersecting storylines. In the original edit, Hines and his dalliance with Lonette McKee was nearly expurgated entirely. Apparently, the producers were diffident about a cloven focus on the black entertainers.
Now, the highly infectious choreography and Bugsby Berkeley-like dance numbers are resuscitated anew (McKee’s “Stormy Weather” is a mellifluous, powerhouse standout). A montage with “Wind” serenading over tommy-guns and publications about the Prohibition hoodlums, is only a few years away from the nostalgia of Warren Beatty’s valentine Dick Tracy.
Once the film clambers away from the subplot with Vera (Diane Lane) and Gere substitutes his cornet for the silver screen, the film metamorphoses into a glistening, unofficial biopic on George Raft and his contemporaries who moonlighted as dancers.
The evocative through-line to the film is how brothers can bifurcate spiritually but are still bound by camaraderie (e.g. A morbidly funny scene is when Frenchy (Gwynne) squabbles with Owney over the amount of his ransom). Shortcomings and all, The Cotton Club is a fulgid crime drama that should’ve procured a better reputation.
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