BR: Tucker – The Man and His Dream (1988)

September 5, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Lionsgate

Region: A, B, C

Released:  August 28, 2018

Genre:  Drama / Biography

Synopsis: Bubbly, fast-paced chronicle of indie auto maker Preston Tucker and his short-lived, streamlined sedan.

Special Features:  2000 Audio Commentary with director Francis Ford Coppola / 2018 Coppola Introduction (3:38) / 2000 Featurette “Under the Hood: Making Tucker” (10:01) / Deleted Scene (4:10) with optional Coppola commentary / 1948 Promo Featurette “Tucker: The Man and the Car ” (15 min. edit) with optional Coppola commentary / Digital Copy.

 


 

Review:

Originally conceived as a musical (!) but shelved for several years until friend George Lucas asked ‘Hey, whatever happened to that movie about Preston Tucker?’ Francis Ford Coppola’s deeply personal biopic is arguably one of his best works which few have heard of, or at least fans of his iconic Godfather series and Apocalypse Now.

As he explains in the commentary that accompanied the original 2000 DVD release, Coppola had just finished Apocalypse and sought to make a musical version based on the life of the little-known / forgotten maverick auto entrepreneur whose dream of bucking the Detroit establishment and building a better, safer, stylish car for postwar consumers resulted in just under 50 cars before the automobiles, the company, and what could’ve marshaled a major shift in car design and manufacturing were dead.

One from the Heart (1981) was supposed to be a technical test of shooting a musical at the director’s new American Zoetrope Studios, but its massive cost sunk Coppola’s dream of running his own indie production firm, and like Tucker: The Man and His Dream, never saw Zoetrope evolve into a game-changing force that challenged studio dominance. (His dream wasn’t unique: take indie Hemdale, which slowly earned accolades and major earnings before it too wobbled a bit, and like many indie companies of the era, were bought by larger entities, and whose catalogues were absorbed by the majors.)

The fate of Preston Tucker’s empire was hobbled by a series of political and corporate maneuvers, a highly publicized court case, and perhaps his own death a few years later, but as stated at the film’s closing creits, it’s the idea that matters, and trying to pursue that dream with vigor.

Coppola’s original concept was to feature music by Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) and lyrics by the famed team of Adolph Green and Betty Comden (My Sister Eileen) – the trio even ventured to his home and a song was written – but when an opportunity to pursue his dream of a Tucker bio came in earnest from pal and producer Lucas, the project was conceived as a slick drama with the energy, streamlining, gloss, and panache of a 1940s commercial ad. Tucker does move at a breakneck pace, and some of the dialogue sounds like classic lines from a Technicolor biography – aspects that make the film a little surreal for those expecting harder drama and moments of intimate, unscored introspection for the struggling hero – but when accepted as a tale of a big thinking, bull-headed, ludicrously optimistic little guy (played with special energy by Jeff Bridges) whose legacy did ultimately influence the automobile industry, it works beautifully.

Much of what occurs in Tucker is cribbed from true incidents and recollections by his family, including his one-time meeting with Howard Hughes who advised him to buy what was the world’s largest factory. Even the hiring of designer and ace problem-solver Alex Tremulis (Elia Koteas) right on the spot, and a pitch to factory executives using graphic car crash stills, were true.

The core story unfolds like a classic Hollywood bio: after apprenticing at major car companies, Tucker used his engineering brilliance to build an armored car for the U.S. Army that was too fast, but its gun turret proved vital in airplanes and ships. His experience with racing cars and desire to simplify car parts, offer an enticing & style vehicle, and emphasize safety resulted in a machine with all sorts of then-novel features, including independent suspension, foam dashboards, and pop-out windshields to protect passengers.

The Tucker car was fast, rugged, resilient, and just plain gorgeous with its three headlights and then-adventurous rear engine, but the battle to deliver the first 50 vehicles and fulfill his contract with the government and prove he was committed to making cars and a profit was hampered by tight deadlines, and an almost-jinxed product launch, and later flying across the U.S. with one car to entice a dealer network and seed a hunger in consumers for his sexy machine. His wife Vera (Joan Allen) and son Junior (Christian Slater) were supporters & collaborators, while chief financier Abe (Martin Landau) grew to share in Tucker’s dream and challenge the dominance of Detroit’s major firms.

Coppola’s direction elevates Tucker to a folk hero with a mythic shimmer, and Joe Jackson’s jaunty score becomes the slick “contraption” that was the Tucker: a gleaming array of horns, rhythmic backbeats, and clanging sounds that propel scenes and trace both the car’s evolution and successful mechanical refinements. Also worked into the music and sung in key scenes is “Tiger Rag” which Tucker sang (“Hold That Tiger!”) to get himself and his team going when mood and energies were ebbing too low.

That stylized, old-fashioned storytelling can give the film a dated feel or augment the production above the standard meandering, tragedy-tinged biography – it’s really up to the viewer to absorb and accept the ebullient package Coppola’s crafted; sometimes a second viewing helps one accept Tucker as a small masterpiece made with deep affection by its maker. Coppola grew up in Detroit, went to an itinerant auto show to see the much-touted car, and his dad bought one of the stock certificates in the hopes of getting the dream machine. Coppola would ultimately own two cars (as does Lucas), but in paraphrasing a line Abe says to Tucker, Coppola got too close to the Tucker dream, transposing ingenuity and maverick tactics to filmmaking at Zoetrope, where he gambled too much and made works which detractors decried as indulgent, disastrous, and career-killing.

Those who saw Tucker on the big screen were delighted by Paramount’s special edition DVD, which sported a genial, informative commentary track by its maker, a vintage interview featurette with director and very young Lucas, and actors Bridges, Landau, and Allen. (The featurette, also on the BR, crops the interviews to widescreen, making the headroom awkward, and tight. The featurette looks fine on the BR but really should’ve been de-interlaced to soften the jagged lines) There was also Tucker: The Man and the Car, a vintage promo featurette produced in 1948 by Tucker to sell the concept of his car to the public, dealers, and investors, which I’ll examine in detail shortly.

The DVD transfer, sharp for its era, was reformatted from 2.35:1 ratio to something resembling 1.90:1 to 2.0:1, chopping off the sides but opening up the top and bottom areas a bit. Why the ratio was altered was never explained, but for a period, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro sought to impose Univisium, a 2.0:1 ratio on certain home video transfers that bungled works such as Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and Coppola’s Apocalypse). Whereas a Korean DVD states a 2.35:1 transfer, both the Canadian & U.S. sleeve copy only uses the terms widescreen and ’16 x 9 in place of stating the actual ratio.

Like Apocalypse, Coppola’s distribution agreement with Paramount ended a few years ago, and both films are available via Lionsgate. The new 4K transfer is stunning; if Tucker ever makes it to 4K BR, Storaro’s lighting, the film’s costumes, the cars, and Dean Tavoularis’ extraordinary production design will glow. The clarity, colour saturation, deep beautiful blacks, and Storaro’s intricate lighting are incredible.

The sound mix, however, is not quite perfect. Tucker was reportedly released in 70mm 6-track surround sound, and the U.S. DVD reportedly contained both a 5.1 and 2.0 English mix – the latter missing on the Canadian release. Both seem to contain the same French 2.0 mix (although the sleeve copy for Canada reads French 2.0 Surround Sound), whereas the Korean disc sports just the English 2.0 mix.

Lionsgate’s disc offers just the 5.1 mix, and while clear and vibrant, it sounds like a 5.1 expanded from 2.0 stems, with some peripheral effects and panning, and a few roaring passes, but where the new mix falters is whenever characters speak softly. A key example is Abe’s ‘Don’t get close to people or you’ll catch their dreams’ exchange with Tucker: Bridges’ voice resonates, but Landau’s soft, near-whispers are very low, and the differing levels can’t be compensated by correcting the centre speaker with a few dB notches. A higher-end system in a sound-proofed home theatre might handle the levels fine, but viewers with more mundane 5.1 setups in average living rooms might find certain dialogue exchanges with polar levels frustrating. (Because the Digital Copy is available from mainly U.S.-only sites, it wasn’t possible to check for differences between the digital and BR audio mix es.)

Pity there’s no isolated score track or new interview featurette with composer Jackson, whose work in film and TV spanned just a handful of works. (In 1987, Jackson was hired by Miami Vice creator Anthony Yerkovich to score the main theme and pilot episode of the short-lived period series Private Eye), but we do get a deleted scene which, as Coppola’s alternate commentary explains, proved less clear in explaining to audiences Tucker’s need to heat and chill two components for the engine prototype. Lacking dialogue, the montage (taken from a surviving VHS window dub) has him and his team sneaking into the family kitchen early in the morning, and just as things reach a critical point, a mass of Dalmatians pour into the room, upsetting the delicate operation. Also new is a filmed intro in which Coppola somewhat recaps info in the commentary.

The BR contains the same vintage Tucker promo on the DVD (Coppola’s optional commentary’s also present, with the director pointing out parallels between the archival material and his film), but it’s actually an edited version of the longer 27 minute featurette. Obvious modern digital fadeouts indicate where material was dropped, and although there’s a slightly longer edit on YouTube, the full version (also on YT) contains segments boasting of a global dealer network, a longer section on the manufacture of the car’s engine and transmission components, an aerial view of the MASSIVE auto plant, and more of Tucker’s city-to-city tour with the car.

The extra material may have been clipped to tighten the pace, but including only part of the rare promo defeats the purpose of using it to add to the Tucker mythos. One aspect missing from the 15 min. edit is presenting a massive dealer network, the car being actively mass-produced at the factory, and the sense the car’s street date is imminent as fact; dealers (in Iceland?) never received cars, and the production footage is mostly close-ups which were likely filmed during the production of the first & only batch.

 

Early hyperbolic ad spread, as posted in the Mid Century Advertising Facebook group.

 

Both short and long versions are fascinating window into the clever tactics used to tease audiences into wanting the car: it’s gorgeous, it’s fast, it did survive two days of straight driving and a rollover on a test track, and Coppola minded some imagery for some scenes, such as the little girl in the front compartment showing the car’s padded dash; and the Tucker shield that opens the feature film. The onscreen text and narration also mimic the vintage promo.

Now, as a promo featurette, it’s still technically crude – shots of Tucker in his office fluctuate between soft and sharp focus – and some shots have a hasty feel, including the car being driven on a country highway; in the latter, tension comes not from the fast-approaching, fuzzily shot car, but a caterpillar inching onto the shoulder gravel to avoid getting pancaked. Other material snipped for the DVD and BR features a middle eastern ‘prince’ chatting with a dealer by a building, and sustained static angles of a parked Tucker that features no narration; unlike the opening shots of Tucker at his desk, there’s no narration to explain or hint at what’s up, but like the longer excised material, it too infers there are already international buyers enjoying the readily available car.

Flaws aside, Lionsgate’s Blu is still the best presentation of the film thus far. Tucker was perhaps the lone personal film made by Coppola during a period of ‘hired gun’ efforts to pay off the One from the Heart debts (which might explain the existence of The Godfather: Part III, The Rainmaker, and Jack). This affectionate, almost classically structured, Capraesque drama may not have enjoyed big business in cinemas, but it’s a gem to which those in the know will guide newcomers. It may not be a cinematic milestone, but it’s a mini-masterpiece with a message to tinkerers, inventors, and artists to keep dreaming and working towards supposedly impossible goals.

Tucker: The Man and His Dream earned Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Art and Set Decoration. After languishing in a lot of crap for several years, Landon earned both a Best Supporting Actor nomination and won a Golden Globe Award, after which followed memorable roles in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Ed Wood (1994).

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

 

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:

Amazon Canada —  Amazon USA —  Amazon UK

 


 

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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