''The Cotton Club'' is routinely eclipsed by the controversies that surrounded its tumultuous production, but the film itself offers abundant pleasures that should not be overlooked. If ''Apocalypse Now'' represents the triumph of director Francis Coppola's perilous ambition, then ''The Cotton Club'' represents the ungainly glory of uncontrolled genius, as brilliant as it is out of its depth. As an upscale homage to classic gangster films it's frequently astonishing, cramming a thick novel's worth of plot and characters into 129 minutes, gloriously serviced by impeccable production design, elegant cinematography, and stylistic flourishes that show Coppola at the top of his game.
What ''The Cotton Club'' lacks is cohesion. As written by Coppola and novelist William Kennedy (then enjoying the peak of his critical acclaim), the movie struggles to exceed the narrative scope of ''The Godfather'', but its multiple early-'30s plot lines fail to form any strong connective tissue. It's three (or four) movies in one, with cornet player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere, playing his own jazzy solos) drifting from one story to the next--loving a young, ambitious vamp (Diane Lane, with whom Gere shares precious little chemistry), enjoying the success of a hotshot hoofer (Gregory Hines), and protecting his brazen bother (Coppola's then-newcomer nephew, Nicolas Cage) from the deadly temper of mob boss Dutch Schultz (James Remar). Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne also score big in grand supporting roles, but ''The Cotton Club'' is perhaps best appreciated for its meticulous re-creation of Harlem's Cotton Club heyday, and the brilliant music (Ellington, Calloway, etc.) that brought rhythm to gangland's rat-a-tat-tat. ''--Jeff Shannon''