The Cotton Club

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The Cotton Club is the third in our trilogy of Showbiz movies. Like Cabaret and All That Jazz, it concerns the lives of showbiz types and the power the performing arts have to transform. Like Cabaret and All That Jazz, it is directed by a filmmaker who came to sudden prominence in 1972 — in this case, Francis Ford Coppola. Like Cabaret, it throws the lives of its performers against the backdrop of violent social change and grand historical paroxysms. Unlike Cabaret and All That Jazz, it lacks a strong, motivated protagonist, and that makes all the difference in the world.

Dixie Dwyer is a white cornet player in Harlem in the late 1920s. He seems to be vaguely modeled upon Bix Beiderbecke, who was also a white cornet player in Harlem in the late 1920s. Bix Beiderbecke, although a talented musician, had a drinking problem and died young. That story doesn’t suit the needs of the narrative of The Cotton Club, and so the filmmakers have just gone ahead and made up a whole bunch of stupid crap that doesn’t make any sense. They give him a ne’er-do-well brother who goes on to become a notorious gangster, a romance with another gangster’s moll, run-ins with 1920s celebrities and a career as a movie star.

The problematic word here is "give." It would be great if Dixie Dwyer, white cornet player in Harlem, was a live wire who lived in breathless pursuit of fame, romance and wealth, and went from musician to gangster to movie-star on a relentless tear through the days of Prohibition. What a movie that would be! But he doesn’t, he’s a cipher who gets things handed to him by coinicidence from beginning to end. He’s playing his cornet in an uptown club when Dutch Shultz, notorious gangster, walks in and happens to be in the same room when a rival gangster tries to off him. Dixie saves Dutch’s life and Dutch decides, for no particular reason, to make Dixie his pet. Now Dixie is a cornet-playing gangster hanger-on, and unhappy about it. What does he do to escape this new role? Good question — the answer is "nothing." He gripes about it, that’s about it. He’s in love with Vera, a floozy who becomes Dutch’s moll, and he does nothing to actually pursue her — instead, he acts like a dick toward her throughout the movie. I think this is supposed to be a tough-guy romance, but Dixie’s actions don’t mesh with his character. If, as I say, he was bent on fame and power, I’d gladly accept his dickish behavior as a side-effect of his ambition. But he has no ambition, he gets buffeted by power and fate from beginning to end, and so his dickishness comes off as mere immaturity.

So Dixie is in love with the Dutchman’s moll, which, in the classic gangster-movie tradition, leads to trouble. Will the Dutchman finally tire of Dixie’s shenanigans and off him? Well, no. Because the movie then gives its protagonist an out — it makes him, again, for no particular reason, a movie star. Another gangster, Owney Madden, out of nowhere, decides to send Dixie to Hollywood and make him a star. Why? Who knows? Apparently there is, in the early 1930s, a shortage of listless, bitchy cornet players to be leading men in Hollywood movies. And so, Dixie falls into a third career as a movie star. It doesn’t make him happy or give him any more depth, but it’s what the narrative, for some reason, demands.

This is, of course, the central problem. The Cotton Club intends to say a great deal about music, society, gangsters and social mobility — it’s full of characters who are relentlessly trying to get to the top of whatever field they are in. To say all it has to say, it needs a protagonist who, for some reason, moves through all its worlds — a cornet-playing gangster movie star, to be specific.

To make matters worse, Dixie is surrounded by hugely ambitious characters who are, because of their ambition,substantially more compelling than he is. Vera, the moll, is willing to trade her soul for a shot at the big time, Vincent, his brother, wants to become a gang boss to rival Dutch, Dutch himself wants to take over New York from the Irish, Italians and Jews, Madden is trying to balance all of this and keep the situation from exploding. These are all wonderful characters, and a movie about any one of them would have been more successful. On top of it all, there’s a subplot involving a black tap-dancer, Sandman, who wants to make it to the top of the nightclub circuit and who falls in love with a singer intent on passing for white. Sandman’s story is also more compelling than Dixie’s, but barely even crosses over into his territory — it runs on a parallel track, they never even meet. The Cotton Club wishes to be a grand tapestry evoking a time lost to history, but it’s as if they took Michael Corleone out of The Godfather and replaced him with Fredo.