| Were it not a fictional feature film, The Rose might very well be considered one of the best concert documentaries of the 1970s. Originally intended to be a biopic of ’60s rock icon Janis Joplin before being fully fictionalized by screenwriters Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Bill Kerby (Hooper), nearly half of The Rose’s running time is given over to footage of the protagonist, a ragged, fiery Joplinesqe rocker named Mary Rose Foster (Bette Midler), performing live in concert, all of which director Mark Rydell wisely insisted be filmed and recorded live.|
These are not staged performances in which actors lip-synch to previously recorded studio tracks in front of audiences instructed to cheer; rather everything you see and hear in the concert scenes was performed and recorded live with authentic audience reactions, which makes nearly half the film a genuine concert documentary that just happens to serve the needs of a fictional plotline. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who had just won an Oscar for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), had nine cameras running during each performance, which provided a blanket of documentary-style coverage that could then be pieced together in the editing room for maximum impact. He also enlisted the aid of some of the best cameramen and cinematographers then working in Hollywood, including László Kovács (Easy Rider, Paper Moon) and Conrad L. Hall (In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), to man the cameras, thus ensuring that the raw power of the liveness would have an equally powerful aesthetic edge.
Bette Midler, who was already a successful diva with a string of pop and adult contemporary hits, as well as a popular stage presence, is revelatory as “The Rose,” a character who, in terms of performance style at least, is nothing like “The Divine Miss M.” Effecting a raw, bluesy growl and a provocative, sexually charged stage presence, Midler tears into songs like “Sold My Soul to Rock ‘N’ Roll,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and “Midnight in Memphis” with a sweaty, wild-eyed vigor that hadn’t been seen before and hasn’t been seen since. Her musical performances don’t look or feel effortless, and that is entirely the point; The Rose is not the first, but it is one of the best, depictions of rock’n’roll celebrity as a crushing business of wear and tear that takes talents like Rose’s and grinds them to a pulp and then asks for more. Every night that Rose takes the stage she is at the end of her rope, and the adulation of the crowd reinvigorates her enough to get her to the next day, where she once again finds herself drained and wasted, turning to the bottle for solace and courage.
The arc of The Rose is interesting because it doesn’t chart the rise of the rock icon. Rather, it begins with Rose already at the peak of her popularity, which conveniently masks her behind-the-scenes exhaustion and frustration. We first see her stumbling off her private jet, and it is clear that she is already a mess, barely able to get down the stairs, the sun burning her sleep-deprived eyes even through her sunglasses. Yet, that night she is able to electrify her audience, who chant her name and follow her mantra about keeping her “old body” alive through “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll!” And the next morning she is again burned out, begging her hard-driving manager Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates) to let her take a year off to rest, something he adamantly refuses to allow. The tension between Rose’s stardom and the toil it takes on her mind and body is the film’s backbone, and the tragic consequences are both melodramatically heightened and all too believable. Against all odds, Rydell (The Cowboys, On Golden Pond) manages to turn cliché after cliché into emotionally affecting high tragedy.
The plot follows Rose as she works her way toward what should be the pinnacle of her career: a concert in her Florida hometown, a heralded homecoming that will allow her to show off how a plain-looking high school nobody can reach the stratosphere of fame and fortune. Along the way she becomes involved with Huston Dyer (Frederic Forrest), a plain-spoken limo driver who appeals to her because he is honest and unpretentious and doesn’t seem to want anything from her. He doesn’t want to suck her dry like everyone else, so it’s little surprise that she clings to him, even as she behaves in ways erratic enough to drive him off more than once. The mania of her stardom has infected her to the point that she can’t respond reasonably to anything, whether it be a last-minute set change or the necessity of honesty and fidelity in a relationship.
Midler’s Oscar-nominated performance, which was her first starring role in a feature film, is absolutely crucial to the film’s success, as she must walk a careful line between her character’s physical and mental breakdown and what remains of her soul. She conveys the sense that Rose is a fundamentally decent person who has been corrupted by the toils of her career, and she is at her best in her moments of vulnerability and weakness, rather than when she’s lashing out Mommie Dearest style at those around her. In her best and most affecting scene, Rudge takes Rose to meet Billy Ray (Harry Dean Stanton), a famous country singer who Rudge insists has been dying to meet her. Expecting adulation from a fellow star, she is instead confronted with a direct insult as Billy Ray criticizes how she covered one of his songs and asks that she not do it again. The way Midler plays Rose’s initial flamboyant posturing and ultimate deflation is an acute summation of her character’s fundamental tragedy: always playing a role, ultimately being let down. By the time we get to the film’s final moments on stage and the now familiar, sad piano chords of the “The Rose” dominate the soundtrack, The Rose has achieved an emotional crescendo worthy of its doomed protagonist.
Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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