Coppola's love-in-Las Vegas musical fantasy is ripe for reappraisal

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Dance Away The Art Ache

IT DOES FOR LOVE what Apocalypse Now did for war: nails its essence. Thing is, show someone war’s going to blow their limbs off and they’ll consider giving it a wide berth. With love, tell someone it’ll trash their heart and curdle their brain and they’ll just run back for more. That’s what this neglected jewel from ’82 distils. And like Apocalypse Now, chronologically its predecessor on Coppola’s portfolio, it got a ‘mixed’ reception on release: in fact, it bombed, despite the fact that the director sank his savings into building Zoetrope Studios?for which it was the shiny, neon-strafed showcase. An over-the-top romance, an erotic fantasy and a Tom Waits musical, it wasn’t what his fans were hungry for. There are no soldiers, no guns. But everybody gets wounded.

Some suggest Coppola was so intent on playing with his new visual toy set that he just flung a loose story?inspired by ’40s musicals ?around Waits’ pre-commissioned songs. Whether that’s apocryphal or not, Waits has never struck wiser or wittier. He examines male-female relationships, as was the brief, from every angle: the gelling, the jarring, the to-and fro-ing. The crazy little things. Sung with wonderful contrast by Waits and Crystal Gayle, the songs combine the optimism of the carousel (la ronde) with the inevitable popping of dreams symbolised by Las Vegas (as re-imagined by Coppola). So this Vegas is a fake of a fake?what better place to trace true love’s footsteps?

The couple at the torrid, florid centre are Hank and Franny, Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr?actors who were hot property then. They weren’t, after this. Their fifth (unmarried) anniversary, on a balmy July 4 weekend, should be idyllic, but descends into heated rows. Franny packs her bags and?in an iconic scene?leaves, walking down streets which glow like no on-screen streets had ever glowed. (Betty Bluel Diva director Jean-Jacques Beineix owed much to this moment).

Both, in the initial rush of freedom, find spirit in the night. Franny’s swept off her feet by all-singing all-dancing waiter Raul Julia. Hank, after moping about moaning to his buddy Harry Dean Stanton, falls headlong for an exotic (and, get this, European) circus performer, Nastassja Kinski. Escapism spent, as dawn breaks, Hank realises he can’t live without Franny. But she’s on a roll, and flying off to Bora-Bora with her Latin lover. Hank races to the airport: he may have many flaws, but he ain’t too proud to beg…

This hyper-real Vegas is dizzying to behold, its colour wheel spun by the music’s bitter-sweetness. It’s not typical Coppola: a hubristic hybrid, it’s not typical anything. Which is perhaps why it flat-lined at birth. Now it’s ripe for reappraisal: open your heart and let the neon flood in.