Fall 2019


Cotton Club Reborn

Francis Ford Coppola's controversial, Prohibition Era mashup of entertainers and gangsters achieves the balance between two sets of characters that the filmmaker originally intended.

By Robert Koehler

Gregory Hines performs a dance number that was extended from the original release. (Photo: Courtesy of American Zoetrope/Orion Pictures)

Francis Ford Coppola once called it a nightmare. Now, he calls it a miracle. Once it was The Cotton Club—a lavishly produced reimagining of Harlem's legendary mecca that hosted the likes of Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Cab Calloway—which opened in 1984 amidst roiling controversy involving legal battles between director Coppola, producer Robert Evans and prime investors Edward and Fred Doumani; myriad artistic skirmishes; and even a real-life murder.

Now, it is The Cotton Club Encore, in which Coppola has invested $500,000 and nearly seven years of effort to create a fundamentally different version of the 127-minute original, which has been expanded by 12 minutes and involves the addition of 25 minutes of new material and the excision of close to 13 minutes of footage.

Unlike any of his previous projects resurrecting or reconstituting past movies—most notably the new Apocalypse Now: Final Cut— Coppola observes that Encore is unique, in that it combined the tasks of archival detective work, state-of-the-art digital restoration and post-production sound recording and design. And, typical of a movie in which the lawyers were never too far away, untangling rights and ownership issues proved complex for a proper commercial release this fall, which Lionsgate is handling through a sublicense agreement with owner MGM.

The saga started in late 2012, when Coppola investigated a longer edition that he and his late, longtime editor Barry Malkin had assembled in early 1984. During the videotape era, the director routinely attached his Betamax video recorder (Sony's old counterpart to VHS) to the shooting camera, creating a copy used for same-day daily cutting and more time-efficient than waiting for lab-generated daily film prints. The tapes were then archived. Plucking the copy of his and Malkin's preferred cutout of the archive, Coppola discovered a version that surprised him.

"I saw that it was much better with the material we had cut before the 1984 release," Coppola says. Importantly, it maintained the original integrity and concept of the script by novelist William Kennedy and Coppola that focused on two sets of characters: African American brothers Clay and Sandman Williams (Maurice Hines and his late brother Gregory) and Irish American brothers Dixie and Vincent Dwyer (Richard Gere and Nicolas Cage). While the Williamses (partly inspired by the Nicholas Brothers) ply their tap-dancing talents on the Cotton Club stage, Dixie and Vincent are drawn into the violence triggered by notorious gangland boss Dutch Schultz's plot to take over the black-dominated numbers racket of the late 1920s.

Coppola is flanked by brothers Maurice and Gregory Hines, whose stories are more fleshed out in Cotton Club Encore. (Photo: Everett)

Even though Coppola had maintained the same final-cut provision in his contract on his films since The Godfather, he decided to accommodate the various interests of producers and financiers whom Evans had assembled for The Cotton Club's Byzantine funding structure. "Final cut is a legal term, but then there's the reality of working with others, especially like here, where everybody was battling each other," Coppola says. "Barry always felt that I had been too appeasing to the producers, but in the spirit of wanting to make the best possible movie and also keep everyone happy, I was willing to experiment and see if we could trim things here and there. But what happened is that we went down a road that led to cutting 40 minutes out of the movie."

Because Evans assembled an unorthodox group of investors, cobbling together more than $50 million for the production, there were a whole lot of cooks in the kitchen with their own ideas. Surely the worst of these—and part of what makes Encore so fascinating—were notes that the movie had "too many black characters, too many black performers, too many black songs," as Coppola terms it. "Which is pretty daunting, since the title of the movie is, after all, The Cotton Club!"

Coppola encountered an irony all too familiar to directors who make trims to help their movie feel shorter; the longer Betamax edition felt shorter than the release version. "A movie is usually feeling too long because it's not interesting or because audiences aren't understanding the story," Coppola says. The abandoned edition lying in the archived Betamax box reminded the director of what he once had, and he was determined to get it back.

Above all, Coppola decided to rebalance the story's African American side and restore several vivid musical numbers, including Lonette McKee's solo performance of "Stormy Weather" and ribald comic numbers the Cotton Club typically programmed between big showpieces.

Starting in December 2012, MGM allowed Coppola's team to pull the negative from its library to start research. Using the Betamax as reference, the researchers looked for material missing from MGM's holdings, including a futile search in a garage in Los Angeles' Los Feliz neighborhood where Cotton Club cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt was certain he had seen reels of negative. Some of this material was sent to Seattle-based Deluxe Archive Solutions, where researchers found nearly all of the movie's negative, dailies and sound elements. Malkin's log book helped determine the missing scenes, and key code numbers provided a map to sift through the large cache of material. This written documentation provided the road map for the desired new cut.

Lonette McKee performs "Stormy Weather," a scene unique to the new cut, as is the scene with Richard Gere and Diane Lane (Photos: Courtesy of American Zoetrope/Orion Pictures)

"But we had a new problem," Coppola says. "There were about nine minutes in the Betamax version that I wanted to reinsert that wasn't in the negative we found. We could put it back in, but it would be horrible to watch, switching from a sharp 35mm image to a blurry copy off video or dailies. I had already sunk $100,000 into this, but we realized that we had to find the footage and digitally enhance it."

Coppola's team used the workprint, with dailies as a reference, and started a digital frame-by-frame scan in early 2014. This was challenging, since a scan is traditionally done from the negative to obtain optimum results.

Digital cleanup of the scanned print was done at Technicolor, where Goldblatt's regular colorist Steve Scott then did the meticulous color correction. "Technicolor is the hero of this story," Coppola says. "Without them, money and Steve's talent—plus, the big advances in digital technology in the past five years—we wouldn't have been able to do this." When Coppola viewed the color-corrected print, he couldn't spot any image quality variation.

The subsequent editing phase brought the cut extremely close to the new Encore version, further tweaked up until early this year. This included a new opening, different and added scenes with the Williams and Dwyer families, more dance and musical numbers, and an expanded finale intercutting between the club and Grand Central Station as key characters leave New York.

"Our problems weren't over," Coppola says. "Once we had cut some of the musical scenes in 1984, we gave back the song rights to Mills Music. Now, with the numbers back in, we had to get the rights back."

Some of the pieces had to be fully or partly re-recorded, including a quartet backing McKee for a new recording of "Stormy Weather" and dubbing of a few of Gregory Hines' lines by his son Zachary. The sound work, supervised by Coppola's renowned sound mixer and designer Richard Beggs, transpired over 2015 and 2016 in between the director's various other projects and was aided by the original ADR sound recorded in a studio in post to produce clear, uncluttered dialogue tracks.

When Coppola convinced the Telluride Film Festival to premiere Encore in 2017, he hoped for a good screening, but didn't anticipate the rapturous reception it received. "I hadn't expected such a transformation. It was the dream that you have of a movie that you worked so hard on and didn't quite get, [and it] finally gets appreciated."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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