Nicolas Cage in: The Cotton Club

The Cotton Club

Released in 1984 ▪ Review posted November 3, 2014

“Never regret thy fall

O Icarus of the fearless flight

For the greatest tragedy of them all

Is never to feel the burning light.”

Oscar Wilde

Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club runs over with good ideas, but is too short to convey them fully. Set in Harlem around the historic Cotton Club, Coppola tells the stories of a fraternal tap dancing duo, a violent mob boss, the boss’s gun moll, a talented jazz cornetist, his younger brother Vincent, and a few others. The opening sequence credits a photo album as the basis for the film.

Each character has their own story arc, but only a few interact directly with each other. The film spans the late 1920s to the early 1930s and casts a wide net in addressing racial and money-based issues of the period. So much time is given to creating an expansive and authentic world that the individual stories and characters are lost, which is sad because The Cotton Club has some good storytelling ideas.

Among the many stories is that of Vince Dwyer, played by Nicolas Cage. Dwyer exploits his brother’s random encounter with an established mob boss to get jobs for himself and his buddies as low-level enforcers. As the years progress, so does the ego of Cage’s Dwyer. We see him change from New York City street rat to entitled mafioso, which even within the character’s limited screen time is a good transformation. You see the emotional ascent of an initially meek Cage to a raging Cage. His character’s inevitable gangland execution is protected by his performance.

Ultimately, his is a minor story in a movie already drowning in stories, all of which are short on time. I could easily have watched an entire Coppola film about just Vincent Dwyer rising like Icarus through the mafia, but I’m pretty sure he already made that movie.

The costumes, makeup, and cast are all excellent. I wonder if a director’s cut might offer any further appeal, as Coppola clearly had more to say. According to co-star Gregory Hines, a full hour of the footage wound up on the cutting room floor. Roger Ebert says “200,000 feet” of film were cut. Because it was financed entirely by private money and wound up being a commercial failure, I doubt we’ll see those missing scenes any time soon.

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