Film & TV

Coppola’s Cotton Club Encore Remakes American Entertainment

(Lionsgate)
The classic ’80s movie, now re-edited Coppola, exposes wokeness as a delusion.

The Cotton Club Encore, Francis Ford Coppola’s re-edit of his 1984 period movie musical and gangster film, debuted at the New York Film Festival. Encore, now eleven minutes longer, differs from the original film mostly in the way it preserves Coppola’s early, unique depiction of American race culture. This version expands on the opening line of The Godfather: “I believe in America.”

Coppola takes on the anthropological irony of a white-owned club in Harlem where blacks performed yet were not allowed to attend and mix with the segregated audience. Encore’s opening scene shows a black doorman (played by Woody Strode, the legendary star of John Ford’s race epic Sergeant Rutledge) refusing admission to a black woman who passes for white. (David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue recounts that even W. C. Handy was turned away.) Meanwhile, white musician Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) and black dancer Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) partake of the establishment’s ironic apartheid work policy.

This paradox at the core of the film’s concept (juxtaposing white and black society) is responsible for its oddity and explains why it still doesn’t work. Coppola hired New York folk-novelist William Kennedy to do a Ragtime-style adaptation, and though the story’s biracial narrative predates the concept of “woke,” it remains uneven. Encore exposes “wokeness” (self-satisfying social progress) as deeply delusional.

Encore distills American ambition through the violent and artistic contrasts of complementary brother duos (Gere and Nicolas Cage, Gregory and Maurice Hines) who take divergent paths toward power and self-realization.

Coppola’s prismatic narrative reflects both Hollywood and New York history when Dixie becomes a George Raft–inspired film star and the Williams brothers evoke the Nicholas brothers. Behind-the-scenes gangster drama reflects the private struggles performed on stage by segregated performers who hide their anguish in art. Musical numbers by Lonette McKee and Diane Lane of “Am I Blue,” “Ill Wind,” and “Stormy Weather” recalled 1920s anxieties in the face of Reagan-era aspiration — now post-Obama disappointment.

The Encore re-edit underscores Coppola’s unsentimental awareness of the complexities in American culture and the ambition of citizens confronting its system. He restores and lengthens certain scenes (a family dinner conflict, a romantic tiff, and an Apache dance) to emphasize ethnic and gender complexity — the same ingenuity that would later enrich The Godfather, Part III (1990) while disappointing some viewers.

Hollywood establishment figures don’t get sufficient credit for their humanitarian screen efforts that are easily scoffed at as cornball. The Cotton Club was an experiment in commercialism and aesthetics that tested Hollywood’s commitment to social consciousness. Coppola addresses racism in the aftermath of that stinging Godfather line about blacks (“Let them lose their souls, they’re animals anyway”). It follows the alarming Do Long Bridge scene of Apocalypse Now where a troop of black soldiers are desperately, hopelessly lost in a quagmire — Coppola’s daring metaphor for America’s urban ghettoes.

It was commercial custom that forced Coppola to focus The Cotton Club on the white characters — Gere, Lane, the gangsters Dutch Schultz (ferocious James Remar), Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), and Frenchy Demange (Fred Gwynne), the latter two depicted as a pair of brotherly cut-throat entrepreneurs. Coppola, who had directed the film version of the pioneering race musical Finian’s Rainbow, attempts to correct the imbalance of this Robert Evans production by making the musical numbers Brechtian — as in the closing montage intercutting a Harlem stage performance. The contrast of the stage and the train station is an alienated (post-Cabaret) concept of entertainment, mixing multiple real and surreal leavetakings at Grand Central Station. This is the film’s most successful experiment, but it would take Robert Altman’s 1996 masterpiece Kansas City to get this all-American mayhem right.

Coppola shows off sex and race dynamics in scene’s where Gere’s and Lane’s bodies are covered by a Bertoluccian lace scrim and a didactic speech by Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne): “I ain’t got to do nothin’ but be black and die. The white man ain’t left me nothin’ out here . . . that is where I dance.”

Encore is a social-consciousness musical, brought back to challenge an era in which social consciousness itself isn’t enough.

* * *

Encore may outlast Coppola’s recent statement siding with Martin Scorsese’s critique of Marvel film culture: “When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.”

Testing the social meanings of film is something Marvel movies resolutely don’t do. When Coppola says, “I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again,” he is also explaining his desire to make The Cotton Club relevant to a new millennium. Speaking from an outdated era, Coppola — joined so far by Ken Loach, Brian De Palma, Pedro Almodóvar, and Fernando Mierelles — supports Scorsese. Consider The Cotton Club Encore re-edit a defiant artistic stance.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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