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The rise, fall, and improbable return of “The Cotton Club”

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. For April, we revisit both the game-changing hits and low point misses of Francis Ford Coppola. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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Dating back to the time when he reworked The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) into a 1977 television miniseries that placed the two films into chronological order, Francis Ford Coppola has reworked a number of his films from throughout his career into versions often markedly different from the ones that originally played in theaters.

Some of these revamps were improvements: His recent take on The Godfather Part III (1990) made a more cohesive and satisfying work out of that famously troubled project, though some of its flaws were too baked in to do much about. Some, not so much (my preference is for the original French Plantation-free 1979 edition of Apocalypse Now).

However, the one truly significant renovation came when he took on The Cotton Club, his famously troubled 1984 gangster musical that even its supporters conceded was a bit of a mess. More than three decades later, he transformed it into an infinitely better film — one which took an undeniably uneven work into a crowning achievement.

The 1980s were, as is well-known, a difficult period for Coppola. Having gambled enormously by putting his own money on the line with the extravagant and hugely expensive musical fantasy One from the Heart (1982) and lost when it tanked at the box office, he would spend the next decade working himself out of that financial hole. He did so largely through work-for-hire projects until the smash success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) relieved him of that burden at last.

Although he had a decent-sized hit with his adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1983), most viewed that less as a testament to him than to young girls flocking to see hot young stars like Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze and Tom Cruise. Even that audience didn’t follow along for his adaptation of Hinton’s Rumble Fish (1983), transformed into a highly stylized art film for teenagers, a group that clearly did not want art films.

If it weren’t for the need for money, it’s unlikely that he would have even entertained the entreaties from Robert Evans—the Paramount studio head he famously clashed with during production of The Godfather—to do a rewrite of the screenplay for The Cotton Club.

The film was a musical-gangster hybrid set in and around the famous Harlem nightclub of the Twenties and Thirties, where the greatest black entertainers performed even though they could not actually sit in the whites-only audience. After a rocky period of his own (which included his departure from Paramount, several high-profile flops, and an even higher-profile cocaine bust), Evans was producing the film independently, and planned to make it his directorial debut. However, the screenplay The Godfather author Mario Puzo was found wanting, and so Evans looked to Coppola for help.

Coppola and William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ironweed, reworked the screenplay and when Evans got cold feet about directing, Coppola wound up taking over those reins as well. What transpired from there has gone into Hollywood legend: multiple rewrites of the screenplay, spiraling costs, delays and reshoots, the murder of one of its financial backers, numerous lawsuits, and Coppola and Evans being at each others’ throats from beginning to end. Since this was around the time entertainment journalism was becoming big business, every single hiccup was reported at length in the press.

Gere plays Dixie Dwyer, a cornet player who one day inadvertently saves the life of notorious real-life gangster Dutch Schultz (a terrifying James Remar) who, in gratitude, puts him and his would-be gangster brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage in one of the first of a long string of singularly odd performances) on the payroll. This becomes complicated when Dixie falls in love with Dutch’s young mistress, Vera Cicero (Diane Lane).

The Cotton Club Encore (Lionsgate)

Meanwhile, a friend of Dixie’s, dancer Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) and his brother Clay (Maurice Hines, Gregory’s real-life brother), are hired to perform at the Cotton Club, the famous Harlem club run by top gangster Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins). As the years pass, Dixie becomes an improbable movie star, Sandman and Clay have an acrimonious split, Vincent becomes Public Enemy #!, Dutch discovers the romance between Dixie and Vera, and the Black criminal element in Harlem begins making moves to seize power for themselves.

When the film finally emerged in December of 1984, at a then-astronomical cost estimated at about $58 million dollars, it would have had to be a stone-cold masterpiece to live up to the hype and live down the bad press. Needless to say, it did neither. The two plot lines clashed more than complemented each other: it was a work ostensibly set around the Harlem Renaissance that seemed to put most of its focus on the white characters.

Of the numerous musical numbers that Coppola allegedly shot, the few that actually made it into the final version were seen only in fragmentary form. Yes, there were extraordinary moments here and there—the scenes between Owney Madden and right-hand man Frenchy (Fred Gwynne) were gold, and the Grand Central Station finale was a stunner. But most everyone who saw it suspected that there was a better film in the vast amount of footage left on the cutting room floor.

Encore is simply a better film, transforming a collection of moments into a strikingly concise whole.

As a final kick in the pants, the film proved to be a dud at the box office, though that was the season where a number of heavily hyped titles—including Dune, 2010 and City Heat—all ran up against the commercial buzzsaw that was Beverly Hills Cop.

At the time, Coppola lacked the clout to stand up to higher-ups who, according to him, demanded that the film focus more on the gangster story and less on the musical numbers. More than 30 years later, he used over a half-million dollars of his own money to rework The Cotton Club into something more in line with his original conception, based on a Betamax copy of his initial cut.

This version, which deleted 13 minutes from the 1984 cut and added 24 minutes of previously unseen material, was dubbed The Cotton Club: Encore. It premiered at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival and would have a brief theatrical release in the fall of 2019, before arriving on Blu-Ray a few weeks later.

The original theatrical version of The Cotton Club was a mess, but it was never a boring mess and it had plenty of astonishing stuff in it to help push past the rough patches. But Encore is simply a better film, transforming a collection of moments into a strikingly concise whole. The stuff that worked well the first time around still holds up beautifully (the scene in which Madden and Frenchy bicker over a pocket watch remains one of my favorites in the entire Coppola canon), but the stuff that was uneven now clicks.

Right from the start, the two parallel storylines are more fully integrated (no pun intended) and complement each other in fascinating ways. As for the musical numbers, we actually get to see a few of them play out more fully. Several of them—Lonette McKee’s take on “Stormy Weather” and the show-stopping duet featuring the then-unknown Jackee Harry—are electrifying.

Encore is not without its flaws, of course. Although his presence obviously helped to get the project financed, the normally charismatic Gere is kind of stiff here, especially during his romantic byplay with Lane. (He is more engaging later one when he returns to his old stomping grounds after making it big as a movie star not unlike George Raft.) Even with the abundance of new footage on display, there’s the nagging sense a lot of stuff is still missing.

Unless Coppola is one day seized with the notion to give us a jumbo-sized The Cotton Club Redux (presumably with an extended French Quarter sequence), we at least have this version. Unlike some of his other redresses, here Coppola takes a fascinating misfire and rehabs it into an unqualified success, one as stylish and audacious as anything else in his career.

The Cotton Club Encore Trailer:

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.