One From The Heart: Francis Ford Coppola’s Misunderstood Musical At 40

The true end of the Hollywood Renaissance was arguably signalled by the failure of Francis Ford Coppola's earnest musical One From The Heart, but it was deeply misunderstood, finds Daniel Allen

By 1982, Francis Ford Coppola was on a run of critical and commercial successes that began a decade prior with The Godfather. His most recent film, the Vietnam War-set Apocalypse Now, earned him his second Palme d’Or in 1979 – but that success came after a tumultuous production period. The film went over budget and over schedule. Typhoons disrupted filming. Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack on set. These problems would influence how Coppola would shoot his next project, One from the Heart. This time, he would control his filmmaking environment by shooting on a studio lot that his production company, Zoetrope Studios, had recently bought. It would be set in Las Vegas, replicated through a combination of miniatures and life-size sets built especially for the film. And it would be a musical, taking a fantastical aesthetic from Hollywood’s Golden Age and adding the New Hollywood reality of the present and digital editing techniques of the future.

Coppola wanted to revolutionise how cinema looked and, by self-financing and producing the film himself, how the industry worked. However, when One from the Heart premiered in February 1982, it bombed. Coppola had intended to keep costs low by shooting on soundstages; instead, they ballooned from around $12 million to $26 million. The film’s failure bankrupted Coppola, forcing him to become a director-for-hire to pay off his debts, and it soon became a forgotten footnote in his career. Yet watching One from the Heart 40 years later reveals a timeless, brilliant musical – one that proves Coppola’s glorious vision was deeply misunderstood – and still is to this day.

The premise is simple: Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr) are a couple celebrating their fifth anniversary. But their relationship has lost its spark, and they break up after an argument. Whilst apart, they meet their romantic fantasies. She meets Ray (Raul Julia), a waiter aspiring to be a cocktail singer. He meets circus performer Leila (Nastassja Kinski). Trying to forget about one another, Hank and Frannie spend the 4th of July weekend with their dream partners. But when Hank realises his desire for Frannie has returned, he tries to win her back. There is even the stereotypical mad dash to the airport. Eventually, the film ends with them reuniting and committing to their relationship. Like some other Golden Age happy endings, the climax of One from the Heart feels sudden and a little unrealistic. Nonetheless, the story is never as important as the film’s series of dazzling set pieces and musical numbers.

Despite the songs, One from the Heart isn’t a musical – at least not in the traditional sense. At one point, after he and Frannie have ended their relationship, Hank is at the garage where he works, a wasteland of sand and abandoned Las Vegas iconography, with a matte painted sky in the background. With Hank on his own, full of emotion after the break-up, it is the perfect time for him to sing – except he doesn’t. He just cries silently, with a gravelly voiceover describing his feelings to the audience.

That voice belongs to blues singer Tom Waits, who also composed the musical numbers, earning the film its only Academy Award nomination. He and Crystal Gayle (whose sultry voice perfectly contrasts Waits’) are the singing surrogates for Hank and Frannie, performing non-diegetic numbers broadcasting their thoughts and feelings. The songs are melodic jazz ballads ruminating on love, heartbreak and growing apart. Some songs are from the perspectives of Hank and Frannie, while others are performed as if Waits and Gayle are singing to the characters (When Hank tries to win Frannie back, Waits sings: “She’s got big plans that don’t include you / Take it like a man”).

The movie musical is an illusion-breaking genre – musical numbers begin spontaneously. Large groups of people sing and dance in the streets. Characters break into song because they have no other way to express their pent-up emotions. But what differentiates One from the Heart is how it contradicts those illusions. This is a musical where the main characters don’t sing – it is an almost surreal experience to hear these complex songs in the background as if they are in Hank and Frannie’s minds. Coppola’s goal was to provide a brand new version of the Golden Age musical. He may pay tribute to the era, but he also wants to break away from certain conventions and create a different musical style.

Waits’ songs help to achieve this goal, but the idea of the updated musical is most evident in how One from the Heart looks. The film was shot by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who also worked with Coppola on Apocalypse Now. And from the opening credits, featuring a montage of Las Vegas landmarks as miniatures, he and Coppola play around with the confines of the soundstage. The sets are fake, but they are also gigantic, creating a crowded, neon-lit city. Combined with the matte painted sky, there is a visual artificiality that is obvious yet spectacular. That quality can even be found in something as innocuous as Hank and Frannie’s house, a massive and empty set cast in neon lighting and chiaroscuro shadows.

At one point, Hank moans about what has gone wrong in America, saying, “Nothing’s real. It’s all tinsel!” It is an ironic statement, since One from the Heart is neither completely real nor completely tinsel either. The film occupies the grey area between the two, even in its musical set pieces. One number begins with Frannie and Ray dancing the tango in a piano room, before turning into a dance on a lavish set resembling a dream version of Bora Bora – Frannie’s dream destination. The couple then exit onto the street and dance with a large mass of extras, the Vegas strip turning into a disco dancefloor. It is a familiar musical scene, with the film setting the narrative aside and embracing the exaggerated excitement of the genre. Yet in the scene immediately before, Ray and Frannie have a discussion about Casablanca and whether Rick, as Frannie argues, “should’ve kept the girl.” It is a moment that would not be out of place in a New Hollywood film.

Like most movie musicals, One From The Heart offers fantasy with a dose of reality. But at the same time, Coppola wanted a larger dose of reality here. An obvious comparison is with Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film New York, New York, as he and Coppola both created films fusing the artificiality of the Golden Age musical with gritty realism. And both films were commercial disappointments from New Hollywood leaders, leading to the decline of the movement, but only Coppola’s career was heavily impacted.

One from the Heart offers more than just an enjoyable tribute to the Hollywood Golden Age musicals. Because what makes the film so misunderstood is its sincerity. Coppola risked everything on his dream to challenge the studios and revolutionise cinema. One from the Heart was that dream, and the results are fascinating and beautiful. The look is artificial, but it feels earnest. It was a full-hearted personal vision from Coppola. And 40 years on, that vision still shines, dazzles, and excites.

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