Friday, December 25, 2020

Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club Encore

When it was originally released, it nearly killed Francis Ford Coppola’s career—yet again, even though it was sufficiently well-received in the jazz world to win a Grammy for its soundtrack. Most frustratingly, the filmmaker knew it could have been great if the studio and producer Robert Evans hadn’t done so much to kill. Like the opposite of George Lucas, Coppola went back and fixed a lot of the problems (much like he recently did with The Godfather III), resulting in the director’s cut known as The Cotton Club Encore, which airs on Bounce TV.

In the late 1920s, Harlem’s Cotton Club featured African American talent on stage, but they are not allowed to enter the club as paying guests. This fact comes through loud and clear in the
Encore cut. Delbert “Sandman” Owens and his brother Clay (clearly inspired by the Nicholas Brothers) have just been hired there as featured tap-dancers. Recently back in town, the scuffling white cornet player Michael “Dixie” Dwyer is naturally drawn there, but he will wish he had steered clear.

Dwyer has the questionable fortune of saving Dutch Schultz’s life. Regrettably, the gangster’s subsequent patronage quickly becomes controlling and emasculating. It is especially awkward when he orders the musician to accompany Vera Cicero, his not-so-secret mistress. The sexual tension between them is obvious and therefore quite dangerous. Meanwhile, Sandman Owens’ attempts to romance vocalist Lila Rose Oliver have been nearly as rocky. As a source of tension, the Cotton Club performer has been trying to pass for white, so she can accept more profitable work in downtown clubs.

Evans should have been ashamed of himself, because Coppola’s recut
Cotton Club is a great film. It definitely provides more balance to both sides of the Club’s color line, which is clearly significant. It also fully restores entire musical numbers, which are terrific. (If you don’t see Lonette McKee’s rendition of “Stormy Weather,” as Oliver, you’re watching the wrong cut.) Their inclusion makes Encore a musical in the fullest sense. A number like Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” performed by Priscilla Baskerville, expresses so much about the club’s place in Harlem. Likewise, McKee’s “Ill Wind” and “Stormy Weather” establish Oliver’s character far more than any dialogue.

Anyone who isn’t grinning from ear to ear after watching Gregory Hines lead a one-upping tap contest at the Hoofer’s Club needs serious anti-depressants. The closing fantasia of “Daybreak Express” is also a nifty piece of throwback movie musical magic. Perhaps the exception that proves the rule is the dramatic cross-cutting between Hines’ solo tap “improvography” [as the credits refer to it] and a climatic gangland hit.

Gregory and Maurice Hines were always the show-stoppers on-stage, but now their conflicted sibling relationship comes to satisfying fruition in
Encore. In a deliberate irony, Dixie Dwyer and his wannabe gangster brother Vincent are denied that opportunity by their underworld entanglements. Yet, it is a lot of fun to see the crazy Nic Cage we know so well bubbling out of the manic Vincent (we can imagine his Uncle Francis begging him not to yell “top of the world, Mom!”). It is also good to see Richard Gere in the sort of matinee idol role he was meant to play, since his support for Tibet and the Dalai Lama has gotten him blacklisted from studio tent-poles (seriously Hollywood, he was in Chicago, Pretty Woman, and An Officer and a Gentleman). It should also be noted Larry Marshall is an absolutely spooky dead-ringer for Cab Calloway.

When it comes to thesps doing what they do best, James Remar is all kinds of psychotic as the violently unstable Shultz. Gwen Verdon is endearing as Mother Dwyer and when she finally gets a chance to kick her heels, it’s a hoot. Yet, one of the best discoveries in
Encore is the incendiary intensity of a young Laurence Fishburne as Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes.

There is also plenty of real-deal jazz talent on the soundtrack, credited to music supervisor-producer-conductor John Barry (who had early jazz experience), including big band veterans like Frank Wess (Basie), Britt Woodman (Ellington), Randy Sandke (Goodman), Joe Temperley (Ellington, LCJO), Lew Soloff (Gil Evans), and Bob Wilber (Goodman and the World’s Greatest Jazz Band), who also played a technical role. The various assembled bands sound authentic and they legitimately swing.

When properly reconsidered,
Cotton Club Encore should probably rank as Coppola’s fifth best film, following Godfather I & II, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. He had aptly employed jazz before in One from the Heart and The Conversation, but in Encore it serves clear-cut dramatic and character development purposes, while also standing out in memorable musical numbers. This is a great film that has been saved from Hollywood. Very highly recommended, The Cotton Club Encore airs Monday (12/28) on Bounce TV (and streams on Amazon Prime).