Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the release of Gia Coppola’s new movie, Mainstream, we’re highlighting other work from the extended Coppola family.
One by one, the triumphant Movie Brats tripped, each with an attempt to fuse their personal sensibilities with those of an old Hollywood musical. Martin Scorsese was first, following up Taxi Driver with New York, New York, a non-integrated period musical that’s somehow a less pleasant experience than watching Travis Bickle losing his grip on reality. Steven Spielberg’s big-budget boondoggle 1941 isn’t technically a musical at all, but its intricate choreography (including a sensational dance sequence) brings the genre to mind. Finally, Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart came the closest of the three to recreating the dreamlike reverie of a great musical, and cost him dearly for the trouble. The film’s catastrophic box office performance threw his Zoetrope Studios into years of debt and eventual bankruptcy.
This movie torpedoed the hopes and dreams of a great American filmmaker; the least one can do is give it a look. And what a look it is: One From The Heart offers a radiant dreamscape courtesy of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who had recently won an Oscar for shooting Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and director of photography Ronald Víctor García. They push the lighting of the movie’s Las Vegas setting to rich extremes, bathing the actors in red and gold, the glow of the city lights more prominent than the lights themselves. Vegas itself is reproduced through soundstages, gloriously elaborate fakery juxtaposed with the characters’ anti-romantic grit. The camera repeatedly finds the film’s heroine, Frannie (Teri Garr), behind glass, arranging the window display for a travel agency, surrounded by miniature landscapes. We’re looking at layers of artifice with a real human behind them.
Like New York, New York, Coppola’s film places contentious relationship woes within a classic-musical framework. It’s easy to picture the basic story as the bones for a charming comedy of remarriage: Frannie and Hank (Frederic Forrest) break up on their five-year anniversary, after her restless dreams of paradise clash again with his rut of practical thinking. Over the course of an evening, they each encounter what looks like a dream partner: dancer Leila (Nastassja Kinski) for Hank, smooth operator Ray (Raul Julia) for Frannie. Eventually, they must decide whether to find their way back to each other. Contrary to typical genre conventions, Hank and Frannie are such a drag of a couple that their would-be dalliances into pure fantasy feel like the smart play for everyone involved. When they glancingly interact through ghostly superimpositions and split-screens, it’s more unbreakable curse than yearning romance. The movie is lucky to have Teri Garr, who can make lines like “I want erotic things to happen” sound sweetly funny rather than laughably stilted.
Like Scorsese and Spielberg, Coppola has trouble just flat-out bursting into song; most of One From The Heart’s song score is a series of non-diegetic performances from Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, clearly giving offscreen voice to the central couple. It makes conceptual sense, creating a remove between the dreamlike images and the melancholy reality of the lead characters’ lives. Notably, both Kinski and Julia do actually sing a little at the top of some delirious overlapping production numbers, further emphasizing the escape that they’re providing. Ultimately, though, the distancing effect of having the main characters in a musical fail to express themselves with music (“I can’t sing, honey,” Hank pleads at one point, and his climactic attempt doesn’t exactly soar) is a little self-defeating.
Still, there’s a limit to how much defeat One From The Heart can really suffer with imagery like Nastassja Kinski tightrope-walking across a blue-and-pink desert skyline while carrying lit sparklers and Raul Julia letting a tango spill out onto the strip. Movie musicals were decidedly out of fashion when Heart was released, and as they’ve become more common in the years since, relatively few directors in the genre have equaled Coppola’s chutzpah. Thanks to years of inactivity and his most famous films being relatively classical in style, the director doesn’t always get his due as a technical showman (at least not to the same degree as buddies Spielberg, Scorsese, or De Palma). One From The Heart feels like an attempt to reconcile cinematic magic tricks with the imperfections people have to live with. Maybe glorious failure is part of its DNA.