Despite being met with mixed critical response upon initial release and becoming a major financial wipeout, The Cotton Club is a massively ambitious epic, sprawling in its scope, and hugely entertaining, fusing the period gangster film with the movie musical in very unique ways. An absurdly plagued production on any number of levels (just head on over to Wikipedia…), this Francis Ford Coppola directed film has some of the greatest production design I’ve ever seen (courtesy of the legendary Richard Sylbert), and ludicrously photogenic cinematography from Stephen Goldblatt. Featuring an utterly insane cast including super suave Richard Gere, extra hot Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Laurence Fishburne, Lonette McKee, Nicolas Cage, Jennifer Grey, Gregory Hines, James Remar, Tom Waits, Diane Venora, James Russo, and tons of character actors from that era, The Cotton Club centers around Dixie Dwyer (Gere), a young musician who uses mob influence to advance his show-biz career, but ends up in a dicey situation when he falls in love with the sultry girlfriend of mob boss Dutch Schultz (Remar). Lane is the sexy object of desire, and she and Gere were both terrific. In fact, everyone gets a chance to shine in this expansive tale of friendship, love, rivalry, jealousy, murder, and betrayal.
The plot thickens when Dixie’s brother Vincent (Cage) decides to join in on the criminal antics, while various real life gangsters are intermingled into the busy plot which ratchets up the spectacle and suspense. The musical set-pieces are spirited and terrifically choreographed, with the smashingly authentic costumes by Milena Canonero lending the entire production a sense of gaudy splendor. And it goes without saying that the vibrant and jazzy musical score from John Barry is absolutely sensational, mixing show tunes and peppy musical numbers with somber melodies from the traditional score. When a film goes through as many difficulties as The Cotton Club did, by the time it’s ready for release, critics have already sharpened their knives, which is of course wildly unfair but pretty much standard operating procedure for those writing about film. Every movie is a struggle to get made, some more than others, so it always seems wrongheaded to bring any upfront negativity into a viewing when you’ve heard that things haven’t gone smooth on set. Judge the final product, not the process of getting the film made. Siskel and Ebert most notably included the film on their top 10 lists in 1984 and for good reason, as The Cotton Club is a celebration of all things cinematic, both large and small, and as always, the level of detail and craftsmanship that Coppola brought to the table was eye-opening to behold.