ollowing a decade of dizzying critical and commercial success with The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) — not to mention one Oscar-winning screenplay credit on Patton (1970) and another high-paying gig on Jack Clayton’s lavish Great Gatsby (1974) adaptation — Francis Ford Coppola desired to craft something cheap, dirty and destined to earn a ton of cash, allowing the continued funding of his beloved Zoetrope Studios. What resulted was one of the great flops in film history, a misfire that would leave a tremendous talent scrounging for cash at every turn over the next 10 years.
The initial $2 million budget on One From the Heart (1981) now reads like a dirty joke; the once-modest indie musical’s budget eventually ballooned to more than $28 million. Trading in early Las Vegas location shooting plans for elaborate, neon-lit soundstage miniatures,* One From the Heart literally became a bankrupting proposition. Never mind the fact that Coppola refused to invest any of this money into hiring name actors, relying on his gut instinct that Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr were the only choices for leads. Turns out his gut was trustworthy artistically, but foolish financially, as One From the Heart grossed an embarrassing $640,000 at the box office, bringing the auteur’s alleged “golden era” to a screeching halt.
We’re lucky to have it: One From the Heart is easily one of the finest visual experiments in the whole of American movie-making: sumptuous and emotional on near-elemental levels. From Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle’s smoky, throaty score, to the haze of melancholy that hangs over jaded, bored lovers Hank (Forrest) and Frannie (Garr), Coppola has crafted the ultimate visual breakup record. Hell, Raul Julia’s entrance — as crooning Vegas dreamer Ray — is an all-timer mic drop in a career defined by all-timer mic drops. Eat your heart out, Damien Chazelle, this is how a true king holds jazzy court.
Had Coppola compromised on the sets, music, impressionistic cutting, or even Harry Dean Stanton’s outlandish ‘fro, One From the Heart would undoubtedly be missing an essential piece to its eccentric puzzle. This is a perfect example of style as substance, a level of pure cinema rarely achieved. Was it worth eventually having to sell his 27-acre studio off in order to escape the debts Coppola accumulated while building his own mini-Vegas? Depends on the prism through which you choose to view happiness and success. Though anyone with eyes can take one look at Nastassja Kinski’s floating, blue visage and know true beauty when they see it.
Naturally, what followed was a string of gun-for-hire work Coppola didn’t fully believe in, but needed to take in order to keep his bank account somewhere approaching the black. This included his first S.E. Hinton YA greaser gang opus (The Outsiders, 1983); a Michael Jackson short film that ran at EPCOT and was written/produced by George Lucas (Captain EO, 1986); a John Grisham legal eagle melodrama (The Rainmaker, 1997); and, perhaps most notoriously, a third installment in the epic saga of the Corleone Crime Family (The Godfather Part III, 1990). That’s not to say these movies aren’t as a marvelously made as the rest of Coppola’s usually stellar output; in fact, they’re all quite solid. (Yes, even Godfather III.) Rather, they simply lack the reckless streak of mad genius that defined the maverick’s earlier career.
There would be breaks during this long sojourn through the monetary wilderness where Coppola would indulge his wilier tendencies, one of which resulted in The Cotton Club (1984). Another musically minded endeavor, Coppola’s second song-and-dance act of the ’80s chronicles the legendary Harlem creative conduit during its Prohibition and Jim Crow booms. Though certainly not as artificially gaudy as One From the Heart, Coppola’s knack for handsome period detail is never absent from a single frame.
Nevertheless, where One From the Heart was merely a shattering commercial catastrophe, The Cotton Club firstly failed (at least in Coppola’s eyes) on both pecuniary and creative levels. Feeling pressure from the money men to deliver something that would get a hefty return on their investments, Coppola excised hefty sections of the film’s black narrative in order to instead zero in on white performer Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) and his mob-assisted rise to Hollywood stardom. While speaking with the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast during the movie’s too-brief theatrical re-release last year, even the iconic auteur admitted that Orion Pictures kept telling him, “there’s too many black people and too much tap dancing.”
So, Coppola caved and always seemed to regret it. Thankfully, due to the miracle of modern Director’s Cuts (not to mention $500,000 of Coppola’s own wine wealth) the master got to revisit Harlem and deliver The Cotton Club: Encore. A closer approximation of the filmmaker’s original vision, the Encore edit restores more than 20 minutes and replicates the spontaneous, jagged rhythms of Coppola’s reportedly improvisational directing style. Does this make it a better movie? Honestly, that’s going to be up to the individual viewer’s taste for (or tolerance of) pure indulgence, as this iteration of The Cotton Club clearly rejects a rigid three-act structure in favor of something far more narratively fluid.
The dual storylines — one following Dixie’s exploits, the other tap-dancing brothers Sandman and Clay Williams (Gregory and Maurice Hines) — remain. Still, Dwyer is the chief protagonist, forcibly taken under the wing of stone psycho Dutch Schultz (a putty-faced James Remar) to play multiple roles as gofer, traveling troubadour and inappropriate babysitter for the gangster’s seductive teenage girlfriend, Vera (a barely legal Diane Lane). All the while, cooler heads see trouble brewing in a bloody paradise, as Broadway numbers man and underworld mediator Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) tries to warn Dixie away from becoming too comfy under this notorious new boss’ watch.
Keeping with the jazz motif, Dwyer’s more traditional drum line allows the Hines brothers to really riff whenever they’re on screen. It takes 30 minutes for us to enter the titular burlesque nightspot, where black folks are the main attraction but can’t buy a drink at the bar and are forced to use the service entrance if they’re part of the show. Yet once Stephen Goldblatt’s sepia-toned lens is finally allowed to glide through a single night’s glitz and glamor, it’s clear who the stars of The Cotton Club are, at least in Coppola’s older, wiser eyes. And as the Hines completely tear the stage up with their first tap routine, the rest of the picture’s rhythm section proceeds to follow their lead.
In a roundabout way, it makes sense for Coppola to use a white narrative to backdoor the film’s true heroes, as it replicates the history of a white-owned/operated cabaret for NYC’s ugliest (and also white) criminals, where the black singers and dancers struggled to thrive in their shadows. One thing this new Encore cut of The Cotton Club does well is breathe; it stops dead in its tracks to showcase the type of elaborate numbers its director obviously grieves having trimmed or excised completely in the first place. All the while, Gregory Hines goes for broke, embracing the notion that every room contains a spotlight if you absolutely believe you’re one of life’s main attractions, crooning and tapping his way into the heart of showgirl Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee). In fact, he’s so good that you quickly become mildly annoyed whenever The Cotton Club returns to its rather routine tale of a thug’s underling getting in too deep with a woman he shouldn’t look at, let alone fall in love with.
The movie’s back half feels indebted to Godfather scribe Mario Puzo, from whom super producer Robert Evans originally bought the script for The Cotton Club (though Coppola was re-writing on the fly each day of production). Though instead of brotherly strife set inside one mafia clan, here we find Clay Williams resenting his sibling dance partner’s breakout success, a development which the Hines brothers have admitted mirrors their own experiences coming up together in show biz (as Sandman views his climb as simultaneously opening doors for future black performers). Meanwhile, Dixie lands a B-Picture called “Mob Boss” as his “Mad Dog” sibling, Vincent (Nicolas Cage), wields a Tommy Gun and goes to war with Dutch. The consistent thematic through-line is easy to pick out, yet you can tell Coppola is somewhat bored by these bits, as the picture’s hot blood flows through the connective musical tissue.
Like all of Coppola’s films, some of The Cotton Club’s greatest joys arrive in fleeting moments or tiny but meaty supporting turns. Editors Glen Scantlebury and Robert Schafer surrealistically blend stage performance and time-lapse montage, twirling us through the club’s history, finally arriving at the moment when black gangsters like Bumpy Rhodes (Larry Fishburne**) were allowed to ingest the evening’s spirits and entertainments. Spotting Mario Van Peebles, son of Sweet Sweetback (and a damn solid filmmaker in his own right), as a shirtless dancer early on, links together decades of black artistic history. Tom Waits barks his way through being the club’s talent manager and MC, Irving Stark. Warholian fuck boy fetish object Joe Dallesandro makes a late-in-the-game appearance as Lucky Luciano. They’re all pieces of a greater puzzle that never quite snap together into a cohesive whole, yet are never less than utterly mesmerizing on their own.
To be fair, the movie’s troubles weren’t entirely Coppola’s doing. After apparently having learned zilch from the operatic drama of The Godfather Part II, Evans got in bed with Las Vegas casino moguls Edward and Fred Doumani, as well as arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and vaudeville promoter Roy Radin, with an eye for Coppola to simply re-write Puzo’s script (as another debt-reducing gig) and the legendary producer to make his directorial debut with The Cotton Club. Predictably, the budget ballooned beyond anyone’s control, and Coppola was called in to pinch hit after allegedly 40-plus versions of the script had been penned because Evans either got cold feet, or was so whacked out on coke that he couldn’t handle the job anymore.
On May 13th, 1983, Roy Radin went missing after sharing a limo with Miami-connected blow peddler Karen Greenberger. Radin’s body was discovered by a park ranger a month later, having been shot several times in the head by contract killer William Mentzer, who then detonated the body with dynamite in an attempt to render it unidentifiable. At Greenberger and Mentzer’s trial, Karen attempted to pin the slaying on her hit-man lover and even alleged that her other occasional fling, Evans, had possibly been in on the contract***. Making matters worse, a string of lawsuits between the various producers were filed, threatening to halt the The Cotton Club from being released roughly six months before its slated December bow.
Did any of these controversies impact the compromised theatrical cut of The Cotton Club? Not really. In that same podcast interview, Coppola even cops to letting others set the editorial tone, noting “if everyone is saying, ‘The picture is too long, the picture is too long,’ you say, ‘Well, gee, maybe I should try to make it be less long'.” It's swell for cinephiles that one of our great auteurs was able to claw his way out of debt and position himself later in life in such a way that he would be able to address these past mistakes. Did he succeed in minting another masterpiece with these revisions? Debatable. But that doesn’t make the Encore cut of The Cotton Club any less of a reconstructed curiosity from an era practically defined by being gluttonously incurious.
*At one point, Coppola’s grand vision was meant to be filmed spontaneously with multiple cameras, in an attempt to replicate the “live cinema” feel of early television.
**A role Fishburne would reprise a decade later for Bill Duke in the underrated period blaxploitation actioner, Hoodlum (1997).
***At a 1989 preliminary hearing, Evans was called as a witness for the prosecution, but invoked the Fifth Amendment, refusing to testify on the basis that he didn’t want to incriminate himself.
Jacob Knight is a film writer based in Austin, Texas, whose work has appeared in several publications and who has spent more time watching action and exploitation movies than any human being probably should.