Review: The Cotton Club (1984)

In 1984 Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, wrote a story of crime in the seemingly glamorous 1920s New York, and Francis Ford Coppola was hired to direct the film adaption. Privately financed and completed after countless problems, it was a box office failure and confirmed the ending of Coppola’s golden phase of film-making with its disjointed and unremarkable sequences.

Prohibition era Harlem was a place of elegance and violence, the cruelty and harsh underworld often surfacing and intertwining with the sparkling allure of America’s new age. The Cotton Club, a jazz club with a racial segregation between the musicians and the customers, was where crime lords ruled and rubbed elbows with the rich and famous. Dixie Dwyer, a young and handsome musician,  is caught up in the world of mobsters and, upon meeting the young girlfriend of one of the crime bosses, played by Diane Lane, he is thrown into the deep end of the tumultuous culture of violence and revenge.

A disordered film from beginning to end, it lacks an enthralling plot or compelling characters, yet the spectacular song and dance numbers that lie scattered throughout the film’s two hour run and give it an old-school film feeling, as well as an odd magnetism.

Richard Gere’s inherent charm is wasted in his performance as Dixie Dwyer, yet his genuine talent as a musician is made advantage of, making his performance sequences beautifully passionate. Diane Lane is competent in her role of Dwyer’s young lover Vera, yet is caught in the lack of depth to the character which led her to being nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actress.

As dancer Sandman Williams, Gregory Hines is mesmerising, and when dancing in tandem with his brother Clay, played by Hines’ real life brother,  Maurice, they light up the screen with their immense talent. The supporting performance as the owner of the club from the late, great Bob Hoskins is powerful, and overshadows those of the lead actors by an immeasurable amount. Laurence Fishburne and Nicolas Cage, both early in their careers, make small appearances but bring very little to the completed project.

A mediocre and unexciting film that pales in the shadow of Coppola’s 1972 hit The Godfather, The Cotton Club gives insight into the world of crime but without the intelligence and craftiness that would otherwise make it resonate with viewers.

Rating: ★★

This post was my contribution to the 1984-a-Thon hosted by Todd of Forgotten Films!

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12 Responses to Review: The Cotton Club (1984)

  1. Pingback: 1984-a-thon Day 5 | Forgotten Films

  2. I just finished reading Stone Wallace’s biography of George Raft and he mentioned that Gere’s character in THE COTTON CLUB was based on Raft! I’ve seen the film before but I never made the connection between the two. Interesting.

    • Rosie says:

      Oh wow, I had no idea! That’s interesting to know, although, on second thought, it makes sense and I can almost see how it could be… Thanks for reading!

  3. Ack! It’s too bad this film misses the mark. Such promise here.

    • Rosie says:

      Agreed, the plot and setting alone sound like they could have, potentially, come to form a wonderful film but it’s a shame it didn’t. Thanks for reading!

  4. Pingback: 1984-a-thon Day 5 | Retro Bunny

  5. geelw says:

    I wonder if the studio chopped the ambition out of this one as well as what’s here is such a gloomy mess. It looks like most of the musical numbers were alternate takes or different, lousier angles that someone rescued from the cutting room. Anyway, yeah – this one’s a write off and it’s too bad. In my opinion, between this and the silly, unfunny Harlem Nights, the uptown New York period gangster piece pretty much died out after that.

    • Rosie says:

      Agreed, it’s quite a mess of a film and I sure haven’t seen many New York gangster pieces that have actually been successful in recent years. Oh well, hopefully that’s a genre that will be brought back with some masterpieces in the coming decades. Thank you for reading.

  6. girlsdofilm says:

    I’ve never made it through this film. It seemed too much like the Godfather for its own good (albeit a pale imitation) and it lacks its own identity. I think Gere was strangely miscast – as you observe his musician talents are useful but he doesn’t have the gravitas to carry the role.

    • Rosie says:

      Don’t worry, I struggled through it! Really not my cup of tea, and it was especially bad because of the scrappy editing and casting. Thanks for reading, though!

  7. says:

    Even with the not-very-excited review, I’d give The Cotton Club a chance, for two reasons: 1920s settings and Richard Gere (yum-yum!).
    Don’t forget to read my contribution for the blogathon!
    Kisses!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2014/08/feitico-do-rio-blame-it-on-rio-1984.html

    • Rosie says:

      The 1920s setting was exactly what appealed to me (I’m not really a Richard Gere fan!) but I’d love to hear what you think of it if you get around to watching it!

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