Our review of The Rose (1979) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published June 10th, 2015, is also available.
"It's the one who won't be taken who cannot seem to give…
Patterned rather broadly after the stormy, self-destructive life of 1960s icon Janis Joplin, and featuring a bravura debut performance by Bette Midler (who won the Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination), The Rose depicts the drunken, drugged-out, hell-bent-for-leather days of a burned-out rock singer who just wants somebody to love.
Of course, "Somebody to Love" was sung by Grace Slick, not Janis Joplin. But that's not important right now.
Facts of the Case
Once she was just Mary Rose Foster, a small-town girl from Florida who wanted to be somebody. Today she is. Be careful what you wish for.
It's 1969, and Mary Rose Foster—now known to an adoring public simply as The Rose (Bette Midler, The First Wives Club, Drowning Mona)—is the first-magnitude star in the rock 'n' roll firmament. The Rose has it all: scads of money, hordes of screaming fans, a touring entourage of 29, and a private airliner with her name emblazoned on the nose like a World War II bomber. Consequently, her gruff and greedy manager Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates, Gosford Park, The Sum of All Fears) can't understand why his prized property would want to take a year's sabbatical from the glitz and glamour, at the risk of being forgotten in the meanwhile. But Rose is determined—she's headed for kinder, gentler new horizons at the end of her current tour, which culminates in a sold-out stadium gig in Rose's Sunshine State hometown.
When Rudge takes Rose to meet a veteran country musician whose song Rose covered on her latest album, the singer's life begins to spiral out of control. The country artist, Billy Ray (a flinty walk-on by Harry Dean Stanton, Escape From New York), dismissively belittles Rose's talent and morality, and demands that she never record another of his tunes. An infuriated Rose absconds with Billy Ray's limousine, complete with its chauffeur, an AWOL serviceman named Huston Dyer (Midler's fellow Oscar nominee—for Best Supporting Actor—Frederic Forrest). The two lost souls spend the night together and form an immediate bond, much to Rudge's consternation—he sees Huston as just another hanger-on with a hand out and a mouth to feed.
With Huston, Rose believes she's found the kind of love she has sought all her life—usually in a bottle, or a hypodermic, or someone else's bed. But the stresses of maintaining a relationship, and the rigors of life in the spotlight and on the road, continue to push Rose further into depression, and into an inexorable slide into grotesque public tragedy.
The success or failure of The Rose rests entirely with its star. It has to, really, because there isn't much else here. Michael Cimino and Bo Goldman's screenplay is so thin and transparent it could have been printed on onionskin. There's no cohesive narrative—just a series of more or less related set pieces separated by explosive concert performances. There's no sense of time—after three viewings, I'm still not certain whether The Rose's final tour occurs in a week or over the course of several months. There's definitely no sense of history—although the story takes place at the end of the '60s, aside from a few Vietnam references there's not much to signal that the film isn't contemporary to its year of manufacture ten years later. (There is one hilariously dated scene in which Rose and Huston visit a diner dominated by urban rednecks, and are told, "We don't serve hippies." Rose's retort: "That's okay. We don't eat 'em." Not an original line, but still a classic.) Director Mark Rydell and his scriptwriters sketch out a beginning, an end, and a sudsy tsunami of soap opera in the middle, most of which appears to be there only to keep the film from simply segueing into Divine Madness!, Midler's concert film released the following year.
Through it all, Bette Midler carries the ball as gamely as anyone could ask. She doesn't just take the stage—she grabs the camera, squeezes its neck like a tube of toothpaste, and wrenches every iota of power and pathos from every cell of her being to captivate the screen. Midler rides the rollercoaster of her character's overwrought life like a cinema veteran (one would never guess this was her first major film role), only occasionally dangling her toes in the pool of wretched excess. She's nothing short of believable in one heartrending scene after another, even when the turgid, melodramatic dialogue written for her is barely worthy of the effort.
But it's the concert sequences where Midler shines brightest. She belts out every number and banters with each audience like a duchess to the manor born. The kind of gritty, bluesy rock she's handed here isn't Midler's finest milieu—her vocal and performance styles are better suited to the brassy retro-pop cabaret of her live concerts and record albums—but the Divine Miss M does her darndest to channel Janis while exuding her own unique charisma. One of the film's highlights takes place in an after-hours nightclub featuring drag performers, one of whom specializes in a pastiche of The Rose. Rose joins the act for a rip-roaring number (Bob Seger's "The Fire Down Below"). It's the one time in the movie she's truly happy.
The problem is that director Rydell never finds an appropriate balance between the music and the story. The lengthy performance numbers seem almost spliced in from another movie, and the narrative flow gets lost every time the film detours into a concert hall. If the entire film had simply been Midler performing rock songs in the Joplin manner, that would have been good enough for me. Especially when all the rock-star-on-the-brink-of-meltdown filler is stuff we've seen before, in films with crisper direction and more focused screenplays.
Despite the film's structural weaknesses, Rydell crafts The Rose with solid, if workmanlike, technical expertise. All of the film's sturm und drang is competently captured by veteran cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Both the editing and sound recording teams garnered Oscar nominations for their contributions. The dynamite supporting cast, though, is mostly neglected in one-dimensional, underwritten roles, with the notable exceptions of dependable Alan Bates (whose main purpose here is to play Reuben Kincaid to Midler's one-person dysfunctional Partridge Family) and Academy and Golden Globe nominee Frederic Forrest, who, despite a interminable career in film and TV, would never land a role this good again (less than a decade after The Rose, Forrest was playing Johnny Depp's boss on 21 Jump Street). Harry Dean Stanton and Barry Primus are welcome presences in small roles. The Rose, however, is the focus of the movie—Midler is rarely off-camera for more than a few seconds at a stretch, and she's awarded the bulk of the dialogue and face time. And, as noted, she works hard for her money. She's a force of nature in a film that needs her to be superb…and she is.
Fox's DVD release of The Rose is marred by a marginal transfer,
struck from a grainy, bleached-looking print that appears to have been left on
the dashboard of a production assistant's car over a sunny L.A. summer weekend.
The transfer is anamorphic (1.85:1), but that's as much good as can be spoken
for it. Clarity is murky throughout the film, especially in low-light
situations. Brighter scenes look as though the color was dabbed on sparingly
with water-based paint. A disappointing level of digital noise and print damage
crops up throughout the viewing experience. This is without question one of the
poorer major-studio transfers I've seen in some time—especially surprising
coming from Fox, whose DVD reproduction has historically been commendable.
The primary supplement here is an audio commentary by director Mark Rydell. It's a dry, routine monologue that quickly becomes grating. Rydell might have been better served by teaming with members of his cast or production crew, so he had other voices to interact with. Left to his own devices, I got the feeling Rydell kept looking at his wristwatch, or dozing off, or both. I may have done my share of each, myself.
Also included here are the film's original theatrical trailer—a typical late-'70s edition that goes on almost as long as the movie itself—and a raft of Fox Flix previews. And speaking of Fox and their "flix": that disc-opening promotional montage (you know, that one with all the scenes from X-Men?)…can we retire this stale puppy now? Please?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're interested in a taste of the real Janis Joplin, try to catch D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Monterey Pop, filmed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and included as part of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival: Criterion Collection (this set also serves up a bonus Joplin track on one of its supplementary discs), or the director's cut of Woodstock (Joplin doesn't perform in the original theatrical version). Although it's not yet available on DVD, your local independent video rental outlet may have lurking on its shelves a VHS copy of Howard Alk's 1974 documentary Janis, probably the most complete portrait of the singer her friends called "Pearl."
Those interested in seeing more of Bette Midler shaking what her mama gave her should check out Divine Madness!, available in slightly edited form on a lackluster early DVD from Warner Home Video.
Bette Midler is The Bomb as The Rose. Still the best dramatic showcase for her talents ever put on film. The Rose would have been improved by a tighter script and more sure-handed direction, but fans of the Divine can still revel in Miss M at the height of her powers. Not exactly a resounding recommendation, but it is what it is.
Mark Rydell is found guilty of testing the Judge's patience with his dishwater-dull commentary. Fox Home Video is fined one dozen roses—to be delivered via limo to the gravesite of the late Janis Joplin—for criminal abuse of a source print. Bette Midler, full of sound and fury that signifies something special, is free to go with the appreciation of the Court. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Mark Rydell
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