Pickups

I’d heard something or other about THE COTTON CLUB ENCORE, Francis Ford Coppola’s re-edit of his embattled 1984 production, but it was Meredith Brody in Bologna I guess two years back who said it was much more interesting and worthwhile than all the various tinkered versions of APOCALYPSE NOW, and this planted a seed. I wanted to see it. Finally I bought a copy.

I always rather liked the original — it was the first Coppola I was old enough to see at the movies, I guess.

I can’t be sure of my memories of it, but I think it actually played better shorter. Coppola thinks the new cut plays shorter despite being longer, because the story’s clearer. But clarity isn’t everything. Sometimes puzzlement is more engaging. And anyway I’m not convinced this version is any clearer. Still, I’m glad to have seen it because it has more musical numbers.

Coppola got embroiled in the film in the first place because producer Robert Evans couldn’t figure out how to pull off a movie about the Club with Richard Gere, who refused to play a gangster, would only play a musician, the problem being that no white musicians played the Club. I hate to say it, but Coppola didn’t really solve that problem. Gere glides around the outskirts of the story, vanishing to Hollywood to become a star offscreen, romancing a gangster’s moll, and the movie offers us no reason to care about these characters, cute though they are, well though they wear Milena Canonero’s clothes. In 1984 I probably wasn’t aware that this plotline was a Methuselah-old pulp standard, one which Tarantino would feel the need to explode in PULP FICTION with the Travolta-Thurman story.

I did notice, though, that Gregory Hines and Lonette McKee’s love story (now promoted to the cover image/poster) was actually ABOUT something, and connected to the Cotton Club, even if it didn’t quite have all the moving parts a story needs to have. The Hines character’s relationship with his brother (real-life sibling Maurice Hines) added some complication.

Gere’s character also has a brother, played by Nic Cage — whose storyline which does manage to involve the club, and ends dramatically. But we never learn Gere’s reaction to the conclusion of that yarn, which shows just how uninterested in him the film is.

Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne (who Coppola hired over Evan’s furious objections: “No Munsters!”) improvised a great scene, the standout in the film, and had Coppola been on top form or able to work with some freedom, they could and should have been invited to improvise a half dozen more. Those guys should have been in more movies together.

The other best non-musical scene is with Laurence Fishburne, though his character’s arguing that he doesn’t have any choice but to be a gangster because society is racist… well, his character seems to believe it, and he argues it with panache. It’s good when characters can give a good account of themselves.

In building a musical that isn’t a musical (no bursting into song except during performance scenes) that connects to the social events of the time, Coppola seems to have taken CABARET as his model — understandably, since the Bob Fosse beat him to a Best Director Oscar in 1973. My dim memory tells me that the balance of songs and story in CABARET is much more successful, the two seem genuinely planned to go together whereas ENCORE has some songs which, lovely though they are, just happen. The strongest deja vu moment was when Fishburne and his gang beat up a nasty Club employee — it felt weirdly like the Nazis beating up the bouncer. A strange connection to make.

Coppola films some of the dancing extremely well, and other bits he hacks up into closeups of feet and stuff. Even aged seventeen I knew that was wrong. And there are lots of MONTAGES, usually a sure sign of a film in trouble. They’re very pretty, but they’re period pastiche filmmaking designed to glue together a disjointed narrative.

It’s a shame to feature mob boss Dutch Schultz so prominently and not include his last words (“A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim…”) but in fairness its difficult to see how the authors could have worked them in meaningfully. Intercut them with Cab Calloway’s scat singing?

The elusive onstage/offstage conversion does finally happen, though, right before the end creds (which are beautiful, a bunch of spare montage elements) — Coppola intercuts a stage number with “real” action at Grand Central Station and blends the two into something really magical. Coppola’s best endings are usually based on cross-cutting, aren’t they?

THE COTTON CLUB stars Zack Mayo; Josephus; Ellen Aim; Louise Little; Lou Landsky; Sam Starr; H.I. McDunnough; Louis B. Mayer; Herman Munster; Specialty Dancer – ‘Beale Street Blues’ (uncredited); Delores Dodge; Billy Bump/Billie Bump; Jimmy Jump; R.M. Renfield; Kane; Momo; Baby Houseman; Joe – the Hustler; Gloria Capulet; 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge; Dicky Speck; Gus Fring; Grandpa Booker; Mary Corleone; and Stokely Carmichael.

14 Responses to “Pickups”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Actually “The Cotton Club” IS a musical — in the same way that the Alain Resnais – Stephen Sondheim “Stavisky” is a musical. Moreover “The Cotton Club” has far more in common with “Finian’s Rainbow” and “One From the Heart” than it does “The Godfather” Tons of money was pent by all manner of shady characters involved with the film — there were even murders connected to it. As a whole it’s rather like a very expensive Roger Corman production (eg. “The Masque of the Red Death”) than a standard Hollywood film. It’s all rather slapdash but diverting. Joe Dallesandro is very impressive as Lucky Luciano and Gwen Verdon is marvelous in the grand finale which use Duke Ellington’s “St. Louis Toodleoo” just as imaginatively as D.A.Pennebaker did in “Daybreak Express” Looking forward to seeing “Encore”

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Regarding The Cotton Club Murders As you can see there’s a movie there too. But a very sleazy one.

  3. Jeff Gee Says:

    I kept catching 10 minutes of “The Cotton Club” here, 15 minutes there, and getting more and more impressed. What the hell was everybody talking about? It was great! Then I rented it. Huh. As Bertie Wooster said when his fiancee made him read a paragraph of faux-Henri Bergson: “Well… I mean to say… What??” (My arc with “Gangs of New York” was similar).

    Maybe the template for the re-edit should be “The Epic That Never Was.” Pretend Diane Lane was in a minor car accident and the insurance company pulled the plug. Put in all the good stuff. Maybe there are more Gwynne/Hoskins takes. Shouldn’t be difficult to get Coppola on camera saying rude things about Bob Evans. Diane Lane could wear a fake prosthetic nose. I bet she’d do it.

    Richard Gere refused to play a gangster and everybody said “Okay, then”? Whoa.

  4. Maybe tell the behind-the-scenes story (which is mindblowing — the mob guy sent to keep the film on schedule got seduced by the process and was making calls back to his bosses saying “You don’t understand, Francis is an artist!”) as another layer in parallel to the movie itself?

    Cabaret has a very slight main narrative, but it has the merit of not being cliched. It’s really an alchemical miracle that the film succeeds so well. Imitators beware. Gangs of New York and Cotton Club would probably gain a lot from having their main narratives surgically removed altogether. Scorsese really wanted to make something more like Fellini Satyricon.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    You’re quite right about Marty and “Gangs” Sergio Leone ate his lunch with “Once Upon a Time in America” As for Coppola he’s always had kind of fetish for re-cutting. There was a big back-and-forth argument between Frederick Forrest and Terri Garr in the original cut of “One From the Heart” that he completely eliminated for the Blu-Ray.

    The Irishman is pretty much a “MartySatyricon”

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Coppola is fortunate to attain some form of ownership of his films, so that means he can do edits of his films as he pleases. A lot of the conventional argument by film restorers who argue against film-maker making edits to his films post-facto, never realized that the reason it doesn’t happen as often as it does in literature and painting (where artists have often revised their earlier work) is that the vast majority of film-makers never attained ownership of their work and have to rely on studios and IP owners to serve as custodians and owners.

    I saw The Cotton Club Encore in Albany at The Egg where Coppola himself attended in person and gave a discussion afterward. It was pretty funny and I like the film. I don’t think Encore ranks among Coppola’s best films, or even his best Post-70s films (One from the Heart, Rumble Fish, Tucker, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Tetro) but it’s definitely worth watching and as a period recreation it’s full of interesting stuff. Coppola’s post-screening Q&A was interesting because he would talk politely about Robert Evans one sentence, and then say stuff in another which is quite brutal and cutting about his behavior on this film. It sounded like Coppola was trying and failing to be diplomatic. He said that he had final cut on The Cotton Club and then a minute or two later he’d say, that at one point a producer looked up his contract with final cut and laughed about it and ignored it. So it was strange.

    Glenn Kenny recently wrote an interesting book about the making of GoodFellas called “Made Men” and it’s actually a stealth biography of Scorsese (though you have to judiciously read between lines for that) with some interesting stuff by Barbara DeFina (Scorsese’s partner at the time) and Illeana Douglas. Kenny also has an interview at the end, where he and Scorsese briefly discuss Weinstein’s imprisonment over #MeToo and Scorsese per Kenny, was gloating about it. Kenny alludes to Gangs of New York’s chaotic production but doesn’t go too deep, so it sounds like that’s a sore point for MS.

  7. Pretty hard not to feel glad that Weinstein was jailed, after having bruising creative struggles with him and then discovering he’s guilty of REALLY abhorrent behaviour.

    But Bill Cosby is free, ugh.

    I’m not sure if Leone’s film trumped Scorsese’s. The Leone deals more with time, and covers very different periods. I think the film’s problems stem from the need to have a plot, something Scorsese wasn’t interested in and that never grew beyond the hackneyed. It really just wants to be about the world on New York.

    Absolute Beginners has the same trouble.

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Marty was married to Barbara Da Fina and she continued to work for him as line producer on several films after the marriage went south. He had a affair with the wonderful Illeana Douglas (who is so great I Richard Glatzer’s “Grief”)

    “Goodfellas” is more about Marty’s cocaine addiction than it is about the Mob. He was always at the edges of that scene, thus making “Mean Streets “a far more personal film than either “Goodfellas” or “Casino”

    My favorite Marty movies are “The King of Comedy” and “The Age of Innocence”

  9. I think of that line in The Grand Budapest Hotel, “To him, who has often told the tales of others, many tales will be told” and I think that’s a good illustration of Scorsese and how he came to do Goodfellas. Nicholas Pileggi liked Mean Streets and when he heard Scorsese wanted to do it, he refused to option it to anyone else and wait for him to make it.

    His next film, Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the kind of material it’s covering will have him revisit some of the territory of GoNY in that it’s an attempt by him to reckon with American History with a capital H, in this way address the genocide and robbery of non-white generational wealth by white people. GONY had Scorsese talk about white supremacy, ethnic succession, and the way the immigrant narrative in America is essentially a con job but the message didn’t quite come through clearly. (Like one of the endings was supposed to have DiCaprio’s character join Tammany Hall at the end and essentially put himself on the path of becoming a corrupt ward boss, but the movie framed him as some kind of avenging orphan hero at the start so it didn’t come across).

  10. I didn’t know about the Douglas relationship until I read Glenn Kenny’s Made Men.

  11. Killers of the Flower Moon does sound very intriguing, and apart from the top two names, it’s the least starry Scorsese in a while. That’s kind of exciting.

  12. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The “alchemical miracle ” of “Cabaret” proceeds from Bob Fosse and his amazing skill at converting stage dance into movie images. His film of “Sweet Charity” was rather conventional and while spirited broke no new ground. “Cabaret” broke all sorts of new ground as exemplified by THIS NUMBER Fosse cannily realized that while the clubs were small, the screen his huge. So Liza and Joel do all their dancing with their faces.

    Here’s my dear late friend Tony Holland in “All That Jazz” introducing in compact way a number Fosse would make HUGE

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