If you are an admirer of Francis Ford Coppola’s work, watching The Cotton Club may be a strangely familiar experience. It hits all the beats one expects it to hit, and characters and even entire scenes appear on screen for what feels like a second time, even on your first viewing. There would be a strong argument that this film plagiarized directly from The Godfather if Coppola had not made both films. Iconic sequences such as the shooting of Corleone, and the newspaper montage scene that follows exist within this film in an almost copy and paste fashion. The films are about the same types of people, and feature many of the same central themes. The Cotton Club should just be a inferior rip off of The Godfather, but Coppola is such a deft filmmaker that is difficult to care that we have seen much of what this film has to offer before.
Despite the similarities, there are reasons to watch this film instead of simply re-watching The Godfather. Coppola is a true master of lighting within his films, and The Cotton Club is among the best examples of this. This film draws heavily from Noir style lighting and framing, offering up some excellent shots of the central protagonist and others paralleled with long, well defined cast shadows. Coppola’s use of cast shadows from blinds, curtains, and various other materials on shots of the actors give this film a classical Hollywood feel, despite this being a film from the 80’s.
The Cotton Club centers around a Jazz club in Harlem, sharing the same name as the film, and tells intertwining stories relating to the club, though the film primarily focuses on local trumpet player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere). Dwyer’s life takes a sharp turn at the start of the film when he inadvertently saves the life of Dutch Schultz, a mob kingpin who takes Dwyer under his payroll to repay the favor. However, things become complicated when Dwyer becomes sexually involved with the Dutchman’s girlfriend. If this were all the film is about, it could be considered one of Coppola’s best works. Unfortunately, The Cotton Club is plagued by a seemingly endless number of subplots, ranging from Dwyer’s brother’s tradition to a life of crime, to separate stories related to race and class, as well as a romantic arch plot thrown in. It is a little hard to process everything at going on, but this is perhaps the only legitimate criticism I have of the film. The acting is all top notch, even though Diane Lane won a Golden Raspberry Award for her performance in the film – something that is seemly incomprehensible compared to the caliber of acting associated with contemporary winners of this honor. The Cotton Club isn’t quite a perfect film, though it is hard to compete with some of his other works. That said, it is still a very competent and enjoyable movie, well worth a watch for any fans of his other works.
Also, this film has Nick Cage in it. So what’s not to like about it?
Rating: 4 out of 5