While the club featured many of the greatest African-American entertainers of the era, such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters, it generally denied admission to blacks, while the waiters and entertainers were all African-Americans. Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway impersonators show the jazzy atmosphere inside. During its heyday, the club served as a chic meeting spot in the heart of Harlem, featuring regular "Celebrity Nights" on Sundays, at which Jimmy Durante, New York mayor Jimmy Walker and other luminaries would appear. These and other celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, James Cagney and Gloria Swanson (all three portrayed in the film) paid the $3.00 cover charge to hear the amazing jazz bands, while sipping beverages banned by the Prohibition.
The club reproduced the racist imagery of the times, often depicting blacks as savages in exotic jungles or as "darkies" in the plantation-sprinkled South. The club's decor was modeled after the old South plantations and slavery, hence the name The Cotton Club. The club imposed different rules on the chorus girls and the dancers whom the club presented in skimpy outfits. They were expected to be at least 5 feet 6 inches tall, light skinned, and under twenty-one years of age. The Cotton Club dancers were really showgirls dressed up in exotic costumes that catered to white fantasies about black women. They were expected to throw their bodies around in a manner suggestive of “darkest Africa,” although their performances have nothing to do with the art of black Africa and everything to do with the prejudice of white America. The costumes of the girls where very minimal and they looked like beautiful animals or jungle girls, which actually matched with the dance numbers.
Duke Ellington was expected to write "jungle music" for an audience of whites. The show was a musical revue, which featured dancers, singers, comedians and variety acts, as well as Duke's band, which supplied music for the floorshow and singers. The Orchestra also played independently for the dancing pleasure of the audience.
It all began in late May of 1927 when Andy Preer who had been leading the house band at the Cotton Club died. In looking for a replacement the first choice was King Oliver's band, but they were not offering enough money for Oliver's taste and he turned down the job. The gig went to Duke Ellington and his men. They played in what was called "jungle" style; their sly arrangements often highlighted by the muted growling sound of trumpeter James "Bubber" Miley and trombonist "Tricky Sam" Nanton.
A good example of this is Ellington's first signature song, "East St. Louis Toodle-oo,"(sung in the film) which the band first recorded for Vocalion Records in November 1926, and which became their first chart single in a re-recorded version for Columbia in July 1927. The Ellington band moved uptown to The Cotton Club in Harlem on December 4, 1927. Their residency at the famed club, which lasted more than three years, made Ellington a nationally known musician due to the weekly radio broadcasts on the station WHN that emanated from the bandstand. These broadcasts were heard all over the country and gave Ellington national exposure, especially after the successes of "Mood Indigo" (1930) and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got that Swing)" (1932).
The club not only gave Ellington national exposure through radio broadcasts originating there, but enabled him to develop his repertoire while composing not only the dance tunes for the shows, but also the overtures, transitions, accompaniments, and "jungle" effects that gave him the freedom to experiment with orchestral colors and arrangements that touring bands rarely had. Ellington recorded over 100 compositions during this era, while building the group that he led for nearly fifty years.
Cab Calloway's group brought its "Brown Sugar" revue to the club in 1930, replacing Ellington's group after its departure in 1931; Jimmie Lunceford's band replaced Calloway's in 1934, while both Ellington and Calloway returned to perform at the club in later years. The club was also the first show business opportunity for Lena Horne, who began there as a chorus girl at the age of sixteen. Louis Armstrong and Ethel Waters performed there, while Coleman Hawkins and Don Redman played there as part of Henderson's band.
Paying homage to classic gangster films, with impeccable production design and good cinematography, Coppola has made a very good musical. The dancing, the music, the costume designs, and all the supporting cast are great. But unfortunately, Richard Gere and Diane Lane are not at the top of their game.
On the other hand we have Bob Hoskins, who plays Owney Madden, and Fred Fwynne, who played Frenchy Demarge. Both of them are like a breath of fresh air. If I have to compare them with the leading actors, I would say that the supporting cast made the film alive and more vivid. Owney and Frenchy had chemistry together, which was hard to match from the rest of the actors.
3 / 5
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Staring; Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Nicolas Cage