Sunday 17 February 2008

Welcome to the Cotton Club

Inspired by Jim Haskins' pictorial history of the notorious Harlem nightspot, Francis Ford Coppola's Cotton Club from 1984 looked like a sure fire hit. A top director, a screenplay by Mario 'Godfather' Puzo, a cast including Richard Gere, Bob Hoskins and Gregory Hines and a soundtrack by John Barry - how could it fail? Alas the mysterious death of a financier dogged the production and the mobsters and music format left punters confused resulting in an expensive flop which all but destroyed producer Robert Evans' career and did nothing for American Zoetrope's fortunes.

Clunker or Classic? Opinion is divided about The Cotton Club. Personally I love it once you get used its slightly schizophrenic mix of stunning onstage dance numbers blurring into the sometimes visceral action off stage which blazed a trail for productions like Chicago.

At over two hours, it's a long but nevertheless glossy and stylish production with some fine performances though Richard Gere and Diane Lane are a bit wooden and lifeless. Horsefaced Nic Cage is whiny and annoying and James Remar is a scenery chewing villain, but the double act of Bob Hoskins and Fred Gywnne is inspired while Gregory and Maurice Hines dazzle on the dancefloor. Laurence Fishburn turns up as a young mobster, Tom Waits plays it straight as the Cotton Club's MC while ex Warhol star Joe Dallesandro of Lou Reed's Walk on The Wild Side fame ("Little Joe never once gave it away") simmers as Lucky Luciano.

The Cotton Club soundtrack is a good accompaniment to the movie and features thirteen stunning recreations of jazz classics of the era by Bob Wilber though sadly only two examples of John Barry's evocative and deeply romantic score are included. There are some excellent performances though including Lonnette McKee's heart breaking Ill Wind, Sandman Williams' solo spot interspersed with the death of Dutch Shultz and the instrumental The Mooche which opens the movie with its dazzling dance sequence by the Cotton Club lovelies.

The CD release is a straight lift from the vinyl released at the time of movie and therefore reflects the limitations of an LP in terms of time, consequently many fine performances get lost. Notwithstanding most of John Barry's score, other casualties include Larry Marshall's enthusiastic version of Cab Calloway's Jitterbug and The Lady With The Fan; Sydney Goldsmith's bawdy rendition of Lucille Brogan's Barbecue Bess; Diane Lane and Richard Gere's charming Am I Blue? and Gregory and Maurice Hines supercharged and emotional performance of Crazy Rhythm - there's lots more missing. I suppose that because the movie tanked at the box office, no-one at Geffen Records is going to bother to expand the score which is a shame for Jazzoholics like me.

Moans aside, what you do get is great. John Barry shines and Bob Wilber should be applauded for his attention to detail in creating the spirit and feel of the great dance music of the 20's and 30's without the pops and crackles of course.

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