'Cotton Club' could be Coppola's long-sought hit

Francis Coppola wanted music, so he made ''One From the Heart.'' It bombed. He wanted melodrama in the streets, so he made ''The Outsiders'' and ''Rumble Fish.'' They bombed.

Then he wanted music and melodrama in one movie, so he made ''The Cotton Club ,'' which plunged him into a bubbling volcano of financial bickering, legal battles, and tugs of war over ''creative control.''

Now the epic has finally reached the screen, and it's anything but a bomb. I can't predict whether it will earn back its reported $58 million in production costs, but it looks to me like the hit Coppola has courted for so long - though it's ironic that he had to trundle back toward ''Godfather'' land, with a new batch of gangsters wearing old-fashioned suits, to reestablish himself as a major director.

Not that ''The Cotton Club'' is as sprawling and ambitious as the ''Godfather'' pictures. While they were operatic in tone and structure, the new movie is rooted in the jazz that blares from its sound track - it struts and wanders and takes crazy chances. It's overheated on purpose, like the underrated ''Rumble Fish,'' but this time it doesn't go down in flames because Coppola has found a subject big enough for his florid style: the extraordinary blend of crime, culture, racism, and romance that flourished in Harlem and other jazzified urban centers before and during the Great Depression.

The movie tells two stories, both beginning in 1928 at the Cotton Club, a ghetto nightspot with top black entertainers and an all-white clientele that included the mob as well as the gentry.

The main plot line focuses on Dixie Dwyer, a white musician. One night he yanks a well-dressed man out of an assassin's way, then learns he just saved the life of Dutch Schultz, a premier thug. Schultz makes him an offer he can't refuse - a chance to earn good money squiring the crook's girlfriend when he's tied up with his wife. Thus begins a strange odyssey for Dixie, which detours to glamorous Hollywood before veering back to Harlem for the climax of his feud with ''duh boss'' over that girlfriend, who can't decide between Dixie's charm and Dutch's money.

The other story centers on Sandman Williams, a black tap-dancer who's just gotten his first Cotton Club gig. There he meets Lila Rose Oliver, who steals his heart quicker than he can clickety-clack his heels. Both of them have reason to chafe at their ghetto-bound lives and the festering racism of the club they work for. But rather than binding them together, their discontent drives them apart as they find separate solutions - she passing for white and making a new career, he reaching for the top on his own terms and his own turf.

The way Coppola interweaves the sagas of Dixie and Sandman, you'd think he was going to merge them at some point. But he never gets around to it. He also fails to give both plot lines the same momentum. The screenplay (by Coppola and William Kennedy, who devised the story with Mario Puzo) gives most of the strong scenes to the Dixie-and-Dutch tale, letting the black characters trail off into fuzzily romantic episodes. The movie's twin flaws are a split between the white and black sides of its personality, and a preference for standard gangster melodrama over poignant visions of life among the underclass. Both shortcomings point to a lack of moral seriousness in the filmmaker.

But looking at the parts of the movie, rather than their sum, there's much to praise. Commenting on the criminal mentality as keenly as he did in the ''Godfather'' pictures - and a lot more amusingly - Coppola slyly portrays his crooks as overgrown kiddies who just can't help their stupid tantrums and never-ending greed. He offers vivid portraits of oppressed blacks rising to the challenges of their environment. In superb musical numbers (albeit seen in bits and pieces) he celebrates the exquisite flowering of black artistry earlier in this century - and by putting such an explosion of black talent on the screen, he shows up Hollywood's inexcusable bypassing of minority performers, a scandal that continues to this moment with all too few exceptions.

He also shows a sense of movie structure that's more radical and refreshing than almost anything he's given us before. Peppering the action with stylish ''montage'' interludes that bring events together and show the passage of time, he makes each one more extravagant than the last, finally culminating the film in a glorious swoop away from reality and into a world of pure cinematic invention.

The performances are generally solid, though the supporting players are livelier than the leads. Richard Gere is a smooth Dixie, playing his slightly macho charm against James Remar as the nutty Schultz and Diane Lane as the rather dull woman in their lives. Gregory Hines is terrifically likable if not very exciting as Sandman, and Lonette McKee is just right as his inamorata.

The real fireworks come from Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne, doing a delirious Mutt and Jeff routine as the club owner and his henchman; Julian Beck (of the Living Theatre) as a gaunt thug; and a long list of well-chosen character actors.

A special nod also goes to the artists who populated the real-life Cotton Club, whose gifts live again in the stunning dances and elegant music (much of it by Duke Ellington) that contribute as much to the movie's pizazz as all Coppola's high-powered production techniques.

''The Cotton Club'' is rated R, reflecting some violent scenes and a good deal of vulgar language.

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