One From The Heart (Francis Coppola 1982) – DVD review
Second of the week’s Coppola reviews. This time, to keep things interesting he’s dropped the ‘Ford’ from his name but you’re not fooling us, Francis. WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE.
One From The Heart
(Francis Coppola, 1982)
Movie maths: one from the heart + millions on the budget = a magnificent, dazzling folly short on substance but oozing with style
Apparently, Francis (Ford) Coppola wanted to make something small after Apocalypse Now. You can’t blame him, really, after everything that happened on that warzone of a movie. And yet you get the sense that, even as he was using the S-word, Coppola was crossing his fingers behind his back and already working out some cromulent ways in which he could embiggen his latest project.
It came to pass that One From The Heart ballooned from a $2 million love story into a lavish $25 million musical in which, rather than go to the real Las Vegas, Coppola would recreate it, neon and all, on a soundstage – even down to building an astonishing airport set, complete with jet, for a scene lasting less than five minutes. The result is genuinely jaw-dropping. We’ve all seen projects go off the rails due to hubris or indulgence, but few quite like this – even while it’s totally and utterly wrong, there’s something exuberant and intoxicating about its sheer grasp of cinema.
The two films One From The Heart most resembles are Jacques Tati’s Playtime – likewise a film in which reality is warped into a self-contained soundstage city built to the director’s specifications – and (especially) Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, another experimental mix of Golden Age romantic razzmatazz and post-Method break-up drama. It’s not in the league of either: Coppola doesn’t really do humour, and he lacks Scorsese’s instinct for improvisation. For a musical, much of this is schematic and laboured in its symbolism, and only Raul Julia’s irrepressible presence lightens the mood.
And considering that Coppola was primarily a screenwriter, especially one working off the back of that run of masterpieces, the story of One From The Heart is unforgiveably slack. Basically, a couple (Frederic Forrest’s Hank and Teri Garr’s Franny) who are clearly not right for each other, break up and each finds a new lover (respectively, Natasha Kinski and Raul Julia) on the Vegas strip. It’s the exact same plot recently resurrected in the awful Last Night, and as drama it isn’t really any better here. Garr is flaky, Forrest morose – and neither is charismatic or interesting enough to justify the attention (and the expense!) lavished on their characters.
But the people are so not the point. The music, by Tom Waits, provides the wounded, whiskey-at-3am emotion that the actors lack, while visually… wow. This is a director on a mission to make a night out in Vegas look as striking and audacious as a trip down a Vietnamese river, and by heck he does it. The real stars here are production designer Dean Tavlouris and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who are dancing a duet unlike anything you’ve ever seen between a set and a camera.
Great moments abound. At one point, instead of cross-cutting between the parallel conversations Hank and Franny are having with their friends, Coppola builds the sets back-to-back, separated only by gauze – so that, miraculously, as Hank’s scene ends, Storaro switches on the lights to reveal Franny ‘behind’ him and the camera swoops around to continue her scene. And then there’s the centrepiece, in which Garr and Julia turn a Vegas street into a full-scale dance-a-thon.
Interestingly, two decades later, Paul Thomas Anderson would make one of my favourite ever films, Punch-Drunk Love – another ‘small’ film by a big director, given free rein to experiment and therefore able to create something new and funky and intensely cinematic. Coppola has gone on record as saying that he loves Anderson’s movie, as well he might, because it’s the one that he was supposed to make here. One From The Heart has style, for sure, but the substance is harder to locate – the title is better expressed as One (Is Getting Further Away) From The Heart.
The sad fact is that Heaven’s Gate had changed the rules on what Oscar-winning directors could get away with. Had Coppola made it small, it might not have bankrupted him or wrecked his chances of making great work during the 1980s… imagine if Coppola had bounced back with his equivalent of There Will Be Blood. But he didn’t, and One From The Heart must stand as Coppola’s great folly, the one that toppled his reign as Hollywood’s Godfather. But what a way to go.