There’s an elegant shot about 12 minutes into The Cotton Club Encore—a director’s cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 The Cotton Club—that captures both the improvement and the limitations of this extended edition.
At this point, we’ve already met both Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), a cornet player in Harlem’s Prohibition-era jazz scene, and Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines), a tap dancer looking to launch a performing career alongside his brother Clay (Maurice Hines, Gregory’s own brother). The single-take shot in question follows Sandman and Clay down the steps of their brownstone as they discuss an upcoming audition. The camera sticks with them as they head into the street, then pauses as Dixie and a couple of friends come walking toward us. “Hey Dixie,” Sandman says as the two parties pass. “How ya doin?” Dixie replies. Sandman and Clay, their backs to us, walk away, while the camera picks up with Dixie and follows his crew. This is Encore in a nutshell: a more enlightened version that means to level the playing field between its White and Black characters, yet still struggles to escape the vantage point of the people who made it.
That’s a particular problem because any story about the actual Cotton Club is necessarily a Black story. Though owned and operated by Whites with ties to organized crime (and only open to White clientele until the middle of the 1930s), the Cotton Club was a showcase for legendary Black talent: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, and more. And while Encore tries—certainly more than the 1984 version, by all accounts—to acknowledge this African-American heritage, it’s the sort of effort that ultimately emphasizes what’s lacking.
Based—according to the opening credits—on a 1977 “pictorial history” of the Cotton Club by Jim Haskins, the movie was written by Coppola and William Kennedy, with an additional story credit given to The Godfather’s Mario Puzo. Hines’ Sandman may get more scenes in Encore, but Gere’s Dixie is undoubtedly the movie’s focus, especially once he becomes involved with a gangster (James Remar) and his mistress Vera (Diane Lane). In his prime, Gere oozes charisma and even manages to overcome the ever-present sunglasses and extremely “period” hat he’s given (Lane has her own series of flapper-inspired headpieces with which to contend). Their romance generates one moment of real heat—an illicit kiss amidst silvery stage curtains—but otherwise vacillates wildly between passion and disgust and mostly reeks of screenwriting convention.
Hines’ Sandman has his own romance, with a Cotton Club singer named Lila (Lonette McKee). Although their relationship is as thinly written as that between Dixie and Vera, Sandman and Lila at least get to be at the center of the movie’s best musical sequences. Any time Hines gets a chance to tap, the movie stops in its tracks and rightly stares. (Like Fred Astaire, Hines can’t help doing a little shuffle even in the strictly narrative scenes, as when he taps his way down those brownstone steps.) As for McKee, she delivers a powerhouse rendition of “Stormy Weather” that almost single-handedly makes up for the film’s emotional void.
There are a couple of reasons these performances are significant. One has to do with the filmmaking. Unlike the other production numbers, where Coppola weaves in and out of the performers or indulges in overhead shots, here the camera mainly remains fixed, ceding the stage to the performers. During Sandman and Clay’s tap routine, the camera holds on them from behind at first, then cuts to a full stage view from the front. The filmmaking gets out of the way.
Another reason has to do with context. When Lila sings “Stormy Weather” (a number excised from the original version), we’ve come to know her enough to know that these blues are real—not over a man who’s gone away, but over the racism and sexism she faces on a daily basis in pursuit of her musical career. In comparison, the other Cotton Club numbers are not only gussied up with camerwork, but delivered in snippets, with no context. And many of them—as was the case in the actual Cotton Club—function as high-class minstrelsy, garish reinforcements of negative Black stereotypes.
Coppola knew this, of course. The Cotton Club Encore is not oblivious to its historical setting. During the opening scene—of cars pulling up to the club—you can hear a radio speech on the soundtrack talking about “emancipation.” What’s more, an aside Clay shares with Sandman early on—during that elegant single take, in fact—acknowledges the deal with the devil they’re making by performing at the club: “You start giving White people what they think they want, soon you got no blood left.” And so perhaps Coppola frames some of the production numbers differently to emphasize their racist qualities. At the same time, the movie wants to honor the talent on display. It’s a tricky needle to thread, and I’m not sure this newer version entirely manages it. (Vincente Minnelli struggled to pull it off with Cabin in the Sky way back in 1943.)
What’s difficult to get past, even in Encore, is the queasiness of those minstrelsy club numbers, where the White audience gazes at Black bodies as the camera performs pyrotechnics. The vantage point is simply too compromised. Far purer and freer is a sequence that’s significantly expanded for this version where Sandman and Lila drop by the“Hoofer’s Club.” At this Black-only hangout, some old-timers show the couple how to really tap; the camera cuts to close-ups of their feet here and there, but mostly keeps a respectful distance. It’s exhilarating, and one of the few moments where The Cotton Club Encore isn’t “giving White people what they think they want.”