Sometimes terrible ideas turn out great. A three-hour gangster movie that’s a grim metaphor for the American experience — and the title character’s played by an actor 20 years too young for the part and who hasn’t had a hit in more than a decade? It’s 1972, and the idea turns into “The Godfather.”
Sometimes great ideas turn out terrible. A movie set in a legendary Harlem nightclub during Prohibition — gangsters! lavish musical numbers! fabulous production values! — starring the hottest male actor around (Richard Gere) and full of young talent on the verge of big careers (Diane Lane, Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne)? It’s 1984, and the idea turns into “The Cotton Club.”
Both movies have the same director, Francis Ford Coppola. And the studio chief who backed “The Godfather,” Robert Evans, produced “Cotton Club.” By then, both Coppola and Evans had fallen on hard times. Clearly, the idea was that lightning would strike twice. Or thrice. Don’t forget “Godfather Part II” (1974). Throw in a script cowritten by Coppola and novelist William Kennedy, who’d recently won a Pulitzer Prize for “Ironweed.” Mario Puzo helped a bit, too. What could go wrong?
The production became a front-page disaster: lawsuits, script rewrites, cost overruns, even a murder. The movie itself flopped both critically and commercially. “The Cotton Club” does look terrific and has its moments. It’s certainly not an embarrassment. It’s just not . . . very good. In other words, it’s less throwback to “The Godfather” than foreshadowing of “Godfather Part III” (1990).
In 2001, Coppola released “Apocalypse Now Redux,” adding 49 minutes of deleted footage to a great, if flawed, film. The new version in no way replaced the old one, but it was well worth seeing. Now Coppola has done something similar, on a lesser scale, for “Cotton Club.” He’s added 27 minutes, while removing 13. “This is the film the world should have seen despite the countless court cases, murder trial proceedings, and warring producers,” he says.
All right, it’s what the world should have seen. Does that make it, 35 years later, worth seeing? No and yes. Gere plays Dixie Dwyer, a jazz cornetist (Gere plays his own solos). With his slicked-back hair and fuzzy-caterpillar mustache, he could be auditioning for a “Masterpiece Theatre” version of “American Gigolo.” A chance encounter with gangster Dutch Schultz (a painfully one-note James Remar) leads to Dixie squiring around Dutch’s moll (Lane).
Chemistry between actors is indefinable, but you know when you see it. That’s because you feel it. Lack of chemistry is no less indefinable, and you really know it — since you don’t feel it. It’s bad enough that Gere and Lane lack it. So do their across-the-racial-divide counterparts, Gregory Hines, as a tap dancer, and Lonette McKee, as a Cotton Club singer and dancer.
Coppola’s reshaping brings a better balance in the parallel between the two couples. That parallel extends to both Sandman, Hines’s character, and Dixie having brother issues. Sandman’s is played by Hines’s real-life brother, Maurice. Dixie’s is played by a very young and very wolfish Cage. That’s one of the pleasures “Encore” has to offer, its then-and-now aspect. Jennifer Grey, for example, plays Cage’s wife. “Dirty Dancing” here she comes.
The two best things about the original remain the best things: Richard Sylbert’s sumptuous and exacting production design and the supporting cast. Gwen Verdon, as Dixie’s mother, gets a few extra dance steps in the movie’s celebrated Grand Central Station finale. Bob Hoskins, the club’s gangster owner, and Fred Gwynne, his chief henchman, have the chemistry the two couples lack. The Living Theatre’s Julian Beck is like death warmed under as one of Dutch’s gunmen. Tom Waits, the Cotton Club emcee, is . . . a more presentable Tom Waits. In his 90 seconds or so playing a movie executive, the legendary rock promoter Bill Graham has so much fun he makes you realize how otherwise absent it is in the movie. Well, except whenever the equally legendary hoofer Charles “Honi” Coles is onscreen. Coles gets to do only a few steps. That’s all right, since even standing still he’s still dancing.
Each of these characters is worth his or her own movie. Put another way, the original “Cotton Club” was far ahead of its time. So much of it feels retro and overstuffed. Yet in its overspilling narrative lines and abundant backstories it’s like a blueprint for a really good cable series. “Cotton Club Empire,” anyone?
THE COTTON CLUB ENCORE
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Written by Coppola, William Kennedy, and Mario Puzo. Starring Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Gregory Hines, Lonette McKee. At Kendall Square. 139 minutes. R.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.