In the early Seventies, director Mark Rydell had wanted to make a biography of Janis Joplin, the meteoric rock/blues singer, who lived hard and burnt herself out in 1970, dying of a drug and alcohol overdose.
Aware of Bette Midler's career as a singer, and her amazing stage presence, Rydell proposed a biopic with Midler in the lead, but no one was willing to see the project to fruition. When the chance to revisit the tragic rock icon became possible, Rydell insisted on Midler again, but felt more could be achieved through a fictional biopic; less licensing headaches for the music supervisor, for sure, and the chance to explore more dramatic terrain, and no need to remain faithful to an icon's loyal fan base and watchful rock historians.
Using a story by Bill Kerby and a screenplay from Oscar-winning writer Bo Goldman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and “Melvin & Howard”), Rydell tried to evoke the ephemeral nature of his titular heroine – a rare gift from Nature meant to wither in her prime – and certainly succeeds in the film's concert scenes. As the respective filmmakers of “Almost Famous” and particularly “The Doors” discovered, a film whose leads are abusive to themselves and others can't always propel a film's dramatic episodes between lavish concert sequences to a satisfying climax; “The Rose” is similarly a period piece, occurring during the early Seventies, and in spite of the doom-laden tone, Rydell gets excellent performances from Midler and Frederic Forrest – both nominated for Best Actress and Best Actor Oscars, respectively – and made a point of filming Midler with multiple cameras.
Though the Dolby Surround mix lacks wild ambient effects and more vivid surround imaging in the live material, the tradeoff is a raw energy from Midler's voice and her able band. Rydell explains in his feature-length commentary track that he instructed the audience that the actress had to work for their applause, and their positive reactions come off as pretty genuine. The director also knew when to hold on a shot, and stays on her rapturous face in an early scene, before the band kicks in and the tempo picks up; like jazz musicians in the ecstasy of a moment, there are times when to cut away is simply a sin.
Visually, the DVD is quite lovely, and it's incredible Vilmos Zsigmond didn't earn an Oscar nomination for his cinematography. With Martin Scorsese's “The Last Waltz” under his belt, Zsigmond created luminescent images that capture the emotional timbre of excited audiences, Midler at front stage, and the band grooving a few feet behind. The veteran cinematographer also called on favors again, and multiple cameras were manned by ace cinematographers, including Conrad L. Hall, and Owen Roizman. The cutting is superb, and for a film made before the MTV template became vogue, the concert scenes are truly artful.
Rydell's a skillful director, but his commentary track becomes increasingly spotty, with massive chunks of inactivity taking over, offering less insight and production anecdotes in the last hour. It's a case where the director is faced with three problems: he hasn't seen the film in almost twenty years, and is drawn into the narrative and performances like an standard audience member; he's flying solo and needs a fellow actor or two to prod for material; and he's a man of few words. Disappointing in the end, but at least the film has enough assets to overshadow Rydell's noble attempt but unsatisfying commentary.
The included trailer plays up the myth of Rose, and shows off the large concert arenas that Rydell would revisit in Bette Midler's WW2 period epic, “For The Boys,” in 1991.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan