‘The Cotton Club’: Francis Ford Coppola’s Mangled Epic Gets an Encore – Rolling Stone
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‘The Cotton Club’: Francis Ford Coppola’s Mangled Epic Gets an Encore

The director’s 1984 mobster-musical misfire gets a second chance in a brand new extended version — and the result is eye-opening

Cotton Club Encore

Maurice and Gregory Hines in 'The Cotton Club Encore,' Francis Ford Coppola's restored/revised version of his 1984 movie.

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Francis Ford Coppola did not want to make another gangster film. He’d already made two of the most commercially successful, critically lauded organized-crime movies of all time, and though people kept saying he could have a lucrative career by simply churning out Godfather clones if he wanted to, the writer-director had no interest in repeating himself. In fact, when Coppola’s phone rang in the spring of 1983, the legendary filmmaker wasn’t sure he wanted to do anything close to a big blockbuster-style movie ever again. After gambling everything on two massive productions — one of which paid off handsomely and another that more or less bankrupted him — the man behind The Godfather and Apocalypse Now was content to make smaller, more intimate films like the two S.E. Hinton adaptations he was in the midst of finishing.

Still, when Coppola’s old cohort Robert Evans rang him up, he took the call. Recounting the story in front of an audience at the 2019 New York Film Festival, the director recalls Evans telling him, “Francis, I have a big problem with my child — you have to help me.” Coppola thought that the producer was talking about his son, Joshua; the “child” in question, however, was The Cotton Club, a passion project about Thirties mobsters and musicians that was slated to be Evans’ directorial debut. The former Paramount head had not been able to get his original choice for one of the leads, Richard Pryor. But he had Richard Gere and the late, great Gregory Hines onboard, and had hired Godfather author Mario Puzo to take a pass at a script. It still wasn’t in the shape that it needed to be, however. Coppola reluctantly offered his services as a script doctor, free of charge, for three weeks. “Little by little, I kept getting [more and more] suckered in,” he says. Before he knew it, Coppola found himself sitting in the director’s chair, calling the shots. And that’s when the real nightmare began.

To say that The Cotton Club was a troubled production would be like referring to the Hindenburg as an air-traffic-control snafu — in his memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Evans describes the five-year process of making this ambitious drama as a combination of “intrigue, anger, blackmail, deceit, pussy galore, macho grandstanding, back stabbing, and threats to life and career.” He forgot to add kidnapping, murder trials, lawsuits, cocaine, temper tantrums, power struggles, and a barrage of studio notes that broke Coppola’s spirit. An entire subcategory of entertainment journalism was devoted to charting the movie’s difficult birthing process and, later, crowing about how it made back barely half of its $58 million budget. For decades, it was a case study for Hollywood hubris, industry schadenfreude, and how to craft a cinematic belly-flop. For the director, however, the movie was a huge piece of unfinished business, an outstanding “but what if” in his filmography. That’s about to change.

The Cotton Club Encore, Coppola’s brand-new cut of his 1984 epic, which opens in New York and Los Angeles today (and will be released on Blu-ray in December), is his bid to rewrite the ending of the film’s storied history. Originally envisioned as two parallel tales of brothers — a cornet-player-turned-movie-star (Gere) and his wanna-be mobster sibling (Nicolas Cage), and a pair of dancers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) whose familial bonds get tested — the movie was eventually turned into a lopsided period piece that favored the Caucasian side of the equation, notably Gere’s illicit romance with Dutch Schultz’s mistress, played by Diane Lane. Some 35 years later, Coppola can still recite the mandate he was given by the powers-that-be when he first showed them the completed film: “Too long. Too much music. Too many black people.” This revised edition excises 13 minutes from the theatrically released version but, more important, adds back close to half an hour of footage that, in the words of its creator, “restores the balance of what we were trying to do.”

Indeed, Encore doesn’t feel too long at all. There is a lot more music and black people in it now. And it’s a far, far superior work compared to what audiences saw back in ’84.

The idea of revisiting this not-so-pleasant chapter of his professional life occurred to Coppola a few years ago, when he stumbled across a workprint of his first submitted Cotton Club edit on a videotape. The director remembered the good, the bad, and the ugly of its making, and subsequent unmaking; Coppola also remembered how, exhausted by the constant threats of the movie being taken away from him, he simply acceded to the studio’s whims. He’d admitted to feeling a sense of regret and shame over giving in without a fight, partially because the end result was so brutally compromised (look how they massacred his boy!), and largely because he felt he’d let his cast down after so much of their incredible work ended up on the killing floor.

His team at American Zoetrope was just beginning to gather materials for what would be a third version of Apocalypse Now, the “Final Cut” edition that hit theaters this past August. But Coppola started tinkering with his early-Eighties disaster as a sort of hobby, and the more he slipped what had been considered “peripheral” material back into the narrative, the more he saw the dual narrative that he’d envisioned back in those early, calm-before-the-constant-storms days start to come together.

Specifically, the filmmaker saw the musical half of the story genuinely spring to life. The majority of the material that’s been added back in focuses on the tension between “Sandman” Williams and his brother-partner, Clay, notably when the former tries to go solo and woo the club’s singer Lila Rose (Lonette McKee). But it also allows the Cotton Club’s performers and the culture in Harlem that informed them to step into the spotlight more. The Williams brothers’ dances get more screen time now, the better to highlight their fleet, fast footwork (and underline the influence of the inspiration behind the characters, the Nicholas brothers). Gregory Hines, in particular, is allowed to become more of a co-lead instead of a key supporting player; his “Three T’s” number is an extraordinary showcase for his talents. A hoofers-club meeting turns into a spectacular dance-off. And Encore more than justifies its existence by reintegrating McKee’s rendition of “Stormy Weather,” which Coppola’s films in near close-up, back into the mix. It’s one of the most devastating covers of the song imaginable, with the singer practically disintegrating before your eyes as she belts out her lament. You can’t imagine why anyone would have thought this showstopping sequence was superfluous, running time be damned.

It hasn’t exactly been transformed into a perfect work: The balance still feels like it tilts a tad toward the paler gangster elements. Some line readings by notable actors remind you that their best work still lay ahead. The notion of Sandman’s struggle to make it as a solo artist isn’t fleshed out as much as it needs to be; Lila Rose’s passing for white so she can sing on Broadway, and the schism that causes, is a barely scratched surface. You wish there was a three-hour version somewhere out there, one that truly lets the parallels between the black and the white stories become more apparent, and how the club — not to mention Harlem in general — acted as both neutral territory and a cultural battleground for race relations. Or, at the very least, gave us more of Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne’s hoodlum-aristocracy double act.

But if Encore does not exactly canonize The Cotton Club as a long-lost masterpiece, it certainly reframes both stories in a way that brings the film’s strengths into clearer focus. It feels a lot closer to being an American epic whose coherence and scope have been restored. Seen today, the sheer pleasure of what’s onscreen now stands apart from the behind-the-scenes brouhaha. Gere was at his peak matinee-idol handsomeness, and feels just at home playing with a George Raft-like backstory as James Remar does channeling Edward G. Robinson for his Dutch Schultz. (Nice work with that carving knife, Dutch.) As the club’s master of ceremonies, Tom Waits has literally never looked cleaner. A young Laurence Fishburne turns the line “Only two things I have to do in the world: Stay black and die” into a fatalistic mantra that deserves its own film. The production design and cinematography make the whole shebang look like a vintage Warner Bros. social drama filtered through the lens of Harlem Renaissance artwork. Even its big Godfather nod — a killing intercut with a Hines soft-shoe extravaganza — works like gangbusters.

What’s always at the front of your mind, however, is that this Cotton Club 2.0 is, first and foremost, an invaluable work of salvation and reclamation. During the legendary club’s heyday, it was a common practice to see African American artists of all types onstage despite the fact that not a single one of them would have been allowed to sit in the audience. When the film was being prepped for release, it suffered from an ironic reversal: The studio would have gladly taken African American moviegoers’ money — this was ostensibly a story set in an iconic Harlem landmark, after all — but refused to allow them to be onscreen. Coppola has done his best to reverse that as much as he can. It’s now a much stronger, stirring, sadder, and satisfying look at a pivotal, if highly mythologized, uptown moment. This is the Encore it’s always deserved.

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