The Cotton Club was Francis Ford Coppola’s biggest shot at a blockbuster during the 80s, and remains his most concerted effort to replicate the stately scale and scope of The Godfather films, with the exception of The Godfather Part III, released in 1990. Like the first two Godfather films, The Cotton Club is a collaboration with Mario Puzo, who helped Coppola craft this smoky trip through the New York jazz scene of the late 1920s. At times, this vision of an earlier generation of gangster hangouts feels like a spiritual precursor to The Godfather, since it’s easy to imagine young Vito Corleone moving through the same world as the main characters here – Dixie Dwyer, an actor played by Richard Gere, Sandman Williams, a dancer played by Gregory Hines, Vera Cicero, a dancer played by Diane Lane, and Lila Rose Oliver, a dancer played by Lonette McKee. These four characters come together through the Cotton Club, a Harlem jazz spot run by Owney Maddey, played by Bob Hoskins, who wines and dines the hottest gangsters and celebrities in the city. The result is the most affected of all Coppola’s period pastiches – a study in historical artifice set against free-floating fragments of stylised dialogue and manic tap dance sets, which provide most of the film’s energy and propulsion.
For all this stylish period detail, The Cotton Club is faced with a real quandary, since the jazz club of the title was a segregated venue, permitting African-American performers, but not African-American clientele. In effect, this was a space where white people came to watch black people dance, and to enjoy the vicarious frisson of blackness without having to get too close to black lives. This begs the question of how Coppola, in turn, can dissociate his camera from the white privilege of the club’s audience, and avoid celebrating the club too uncritically. To some extent, this tension plays out in the story, since Dixie is notable for being the first white man to play at the Cotton Club, while Sandman becomes the first black player to cross over into the audience, albeit only in the midst of a violent scuffle later in the film. Trying to desegregate the narrative is not enough, though, and so Coppola tends to fall back upon pastiche to distance himself, and the film, from the thornier implications of the Cotton Club’s segregated form of performance. This pastiche is particularly clear in the case of Gere’s character, Dixie, based on film star George Raft, who we meet preparing for the lead role in a film called Mob Boss at the same time he is making inroads into the Mafia at the club itself.
Beyond Dixie’s character, however, the Cotton Club is presented as a hyperreal spectacle and space, especially during the final sequence, when an incessant bout of tap-dancing segues into machine-gun fire, and seems to be generating the entire spectacular apparatus of Coppola’s stylised world. Throughout the film, Coppola seems prescient that, in movies of this kind, black music creates cultural mobility with for white artists, visualising this situation in a complex sequence that takes place in the closing scenes. As the black dancers form a train in the Cotton Club, Coppola shifts to Grand Central Station, where parole officers apprehend Owney, the owner of the club, as he is planning to flee the city. On the one hand, the black energy of the train dance provides Owney with the financial momentum he needs to make it to the train station, but on the other hand, Coppola orchestrates things so that he doesn’t manage to escape. Instead, the black dancers break out of the Cotton Club, and spill over into the station, desegregating the very space of white flight that they were supposed to contour.
As these scenes indicate, Coppola seems aware that black dancers are literally the motor engine of his film, as they were in the Cotton Club. He also seems aware that black people can’t really be properly processed in this brand of mainstream historical cinema – even when the subject matter is a black club – forcing him to fall back upon hyperreality to make the presence of black folk felt. Time and again, the most hyperreal moments in the film, and the hyperreal space of the Cotton Club itself, coalesce around Lila Rose Oliver’s efforts, as a black woman, to pass for white. In her experience, hyperreality isn’t a futuristic concept, but simply a daily component of passing, since passing requires her to be even more “real” in her performative whiteness than those who simply happen to be born white. This vision of passing as a hyperreal experience produces the most compelling scenes in the film, as well as the distinctive rhythm of the film, which alternates between two quite different registers. Whenever we’re identified with the Cotton Club audience, Coppola opts for highly stylised mise-en-scenes, presented in a classical manner with still shots, wide angles and proscenium perspectives. By contrast, scenes from the musicians’ perspectives tend to be restless, frenetic and dissonant, preventing jazz (and black culture more generally) from stabilising into a static spectacle, even as it percolates through the entire soul and substrate of the movie.
Between the stylised perspective of the audience, and the shifting perspective of the players, a hyperreal “passing” emerges that sometimes creates quite provisional and unexpected shifts in tone and focus, especially whenever we move between the backstage and public areas of the Cotton Club. Not surprisingly, the musical numbers tends to be the highlights, and are where this hyperreality is most keenly felt, although the entire script is never too far away from a jazz number, since every interaction is suffused with overlapping sheets of sound, and cacaphonous conversations that evolve into competing improvisations. Likewise, Coppola’s camera seems acutely aware of feet and legs, which is perhaps why every body in the film feels perpetually poised on the threshold of dancing, bringing The Cotton Club very close to a musical in spirit, despite the fact that it contains very little singing. Throughout his career, Coppola tried several times to match the musical to his auteurist ambitions – it’s no coincidence that Apocalypse Now starts with a compressed music video, and contains a live musical performance – and The Cotton Club is arguably the end point of this process, forming his last burst at musical mise-en-scene before the more multimodal experiments of Dracula.
In that sense, The Cotton Club resonates heavily with both Finian’s Rainbow and One From the Heart, while sharing their main issue – namely, that the film seems to begin and end with the production design, resulting in an immersion experience more than a narrative world that feels especially engaging, exciting or even plausible. As when watching One From the Heart, I wondered whether Coppola was more suited, at this point in his career, to designing a restaurant, creating a theme park ride, or overseeing the layout of a vineyard, since the film is so equated with the minutiae of its world that it never really has much of a chance to do anything with it. For all the meticulous orchestration of historical texture, there’s very little here in the way of real atmosphere, characterisation or even coherent story, with only the passing narrative emerging, from time to time, as a point of real conceptual focus. To some extent, Coppola compensates with a dissonant, angular tone that gives the film a jazzy propulsion at certain moments, and at least allows scenes to unfold at cross-purposes, thereby providing some unexpected shifts and reorganisations of the events as they unfold.
For the most part, though, The Cotton Club unfolds as a series of set pieces, rather than an evolution or progression of scenes – dazzling in their hyperreality, to be sure, but increasingly lurid and turgid as we move towards the third act. That makes for an odd, unwieldy quality, since the style feels increasingly bloated, but the film still moves quite quickly, like two liquids that are sinking to the bottom of a container at different rates. Perhaps that’s why the film works better when it moves away from individual characters to large groups of people, since at these moments the odd combination of volatility and viscosity is quite powerful to watch as it ripples across the surface of mass encounters, producing some of the most sudden and disorienting narrative twists in the film. During these crowd scenes, which seem to be accelerated and decelerated everywhere at once, each individual takes on a new kind of vulnerability, since they’re displaced from their own present experiences in ways that Coppola eventually links to the passing narrative – the basis of these disjunctions in pacing.
For passing, as the film presents it, is also a matter of pacing – a volatile, viscous experience in which everything is too slow and too fast all at once, which is perhaps why the film never quite slows down and never quite speeds up either. Even the quietest scenes are driven by movement, as we periodically shift to Owney as he indulges in his pet pastime – drawing racehorses suspended in the air, with both their legs off the ground. By the time we arrive at the third act, much of the film’s own movement has been frozen in the same way, in what finally feels like a turgid exhaustion of neo-noir, despite the occasional flashes of hyperreal passing that stand out from the more rote rehearsal of period mise-en-scene. By the end, it’s also hard not to feel that The Cotton Club is also a bit of a bad faith gesture, since Coppola works so hard to accommodate both past and present that you kind of wonder why he chose a segregated space as the backdrop for an elegy about his own auteurist heyday. It’s also arguably Coppola’s most pretentious film to date, and the first in a long string of post-Apocalypse Now releases in which he seems so desperate to make a masterpiece that he can’t or won’t commit to competence when it comes to the basic mechanics of plot, character and atmosphere. In the end, then, this is probably the least memorable of his 80s films, despite the moderate critical acclaim it received – a study, ultimately, of Coppola’s own effort to pass for the auteur he once was, the auteur he still aspired to be, in the wake of Apocalypse Now.