Coppola's unsung masterpiece offers an uncommon and uncompromising view of American living.
Forget everything you’ve heard or read about Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart. It might have earned, at a crawl, a piddly one million dollars at the US box office from a gigantic $27m budget. And tales of Coppola’s aloof directorial attitude – shooting the entire movie like a live television manager from his trailer, booming out instructions over the in-house sound system – are true, also.
Reviews were certainly not kind and Tom Waits' lyrics and music wouldn’t be counted among his best work. All this means the film has been observed in a poor light over the past 30 years, but on reflection this is a revolutionary take on the Hollywood musical format. Apparently, nobody could see the woods for the neon-lit trees.
Frederic Forrest and kooky Terri Garr play wire-crossed lovers (formerly star-crossed) Hank and Frannie, who celebrate their fifth anniversary together by splitting up. They argue about infidelities and each goes off into the Las Vegas night meeting potential new suitors (played by Raul Julia and Nastassja Kinski).
The pair’s original plan for the evening was a spot of tenderness and romance, but they soon turn to arguing and aiming cruel accusations at one another. "You know Frannie, you’re full of shit. You’re always talking about paradise but when you get there it’s still gonna be you and all your bullshit walking on the beach", barks Hank "No, not all my shit, because you won’t be with me", Frannie bites back.
The natural style of Forrest and Garr contrasts (but doesn’t work against) the deliberate artificiality and production design. Coppola, at his absolute best, is an iconoclast and has been described as a classical filmmaker who doesn’t want to make films classically.
The one true thing in this make-believe world is Hank and Frannie’s troubled love for each other. The use of sodium-drenched light is some of the most exquisite ever captured on celluloid. But it’s the acting that stands out and feels so intimate and truthful. The couple’s very ordinariness is at once striking and beautifully realised.
One From the Heart is actually closer to the operetta format than traditional Hollywood musical given the constant use of Waits' tunes. Since Las Vegas is where the story unfolds, there’s a sort of lounge lizard style to the score and songs. Even this description is problematic given the characters themselves do not sing except for one sequence featuring Kinski. Instead, Waits and singing partner Crystal Gayle use song to near-narrate inner turmoil and feelings.
As the characters spend a great deal of time apart from each other Coppola uses a split-screen tactic – but not like anything seen before. He mixes it up with cross-cutting, subtle lap dissolves, jump cuts and back projection of images to unite the pair. This lends a magical quality to proceedings (very much an anti-reality flourish so predominant in musicals) as well as poignancy because we can see how miserable Hank and Frannie are without each other, despite them being too stubborn to admit it.
Coppola and his team’s artistic vision is well highlighted in a short sequence after the couple separates and retires to their respective best friend’s homes. At this point Frannie is insecure because Hank has made some disparaging remarks about not fancying her anymore and she strolls around the apartment – shot in alluring fashion – and checks herself out in a mirror before slumping back into insecurity.
A jump cut takes us to Mo’s (played brilliantly by Harry Dean Stanton) where Hank is moping around in his vest, eating food and looking like a total slob. Coppola sets this short moment up as if we’re peering straight in through an open window.
There’s a dissolve back to Frannie picking up the telephone and the light – and room – brightens without the character having touched the switch. She sits down and the plain back wall suddenly projects Mo’s apartment and Hank picking up the phone. The lights go down and we get Frannie in silhouette.
A further lap dissolve changes the scene and reverses the perspective. We now get Hank lying in bed in the foreground and Frannie getting into bed in the background. The camera moves forward pushing Hank out of the frame and settling on Frannie getting up and look out onto the Las Vegas strip as the lights – once again – dim. We see Hank in side profile sleeping with an outline of golden light shaping the contours of his face then in another dissolve on the opposite side of the frame we see Frannie now sleeping.
During the entire scene the Waits' 'Old Boyfriends' plays out reflecting Hank and Frannie’s current predicament and sorrow. This provides an aural thread which subverts the common musical trend of having the characters sing about their feelings. The way Coppola acknowledges and then eschews convention is technically genius and cinematographers Vittorio Storaro and Ronald Víctor Garcíadeserve credit, too.
Coppola’s film is far from a disaster and best described as an honourable failure (in box office terms, at least). He takes a universal love story and centres it on an average American couple. Critics of the day might have been unimpressed by Forrest and Garr’s working class, constantly bickering characters and their situation, but the functional narrative (really a curse of musicals in general) is served by perfect acting, artistic daring and those visionary studio sets. One from the Heart would turn out to be one for the future making it the director’s unsung masterpiece.