Monday, May 5, 2008

The Rose (1979)

She gave and gave, until she had nothing left to give ...

Those of us of a certain age well remember the ultra-talented and ultimately doomed 60s icon, Janis Joplin.

In this thinly disguised Joplin biography, Bette Midler outdoes herself as an out-of-control, incredibly talented, self-destructive singer who turns to the bottle, sex, and anything else she can to hide from her intense inner pain. It sounds like a cliche, and by now it is, but that was Janis--and Bette does her one better. Her angst shines through with great poignancy, even when she is belting out hit after hit, responding to her audience as though she is making love.

Hard living, hard boozing, and bent on destroying herself, the singer has us riveted to her story. Her tearful phone call to the father who never approved of her is one of the high points of the film: Bette pulls out the stops.

Alan Bates is divine as always as the singer's manager, but this film belongs to Bette. If you are not aware of Midler's incredibly wide-ranged talent, this is the perfect movie. It can make you a lifelong fan. By W. Kaplan


Bette Midler sings herself to an Oscar nomination

The soundtrack for this 1979 film is the most paradoxical album of Bette Midler's career. "The Rose," the album, is arguably the best of Midler's live albums, but the songs are all new and more in the mode of rock 'n' roll ala Janis Joplin than the 1940s boogie woogie and other song types that brought Midler to prominence. As if to underscore the point, "The Rose," the song, plays to Midler's strengths as a vocalist while running counter to all the other songs on the album. It is a beautiful song and there really is a sense in which it is the only true Bette Midler song on the album, because the rest are being sung by Mary Rose Foster, a.k.a. "The Rose," the singer. But overall, the soundtrack is basically the best parts of the film.

With "Midnight in Memphis" Midler proves she could be a pretty great blues signer and "Stay With Me" takes on almost epic proportions as the Rose self-destructs on stage before her hometown audience. The flaw of this album, if you want to call it that, is that these songs are performed in character. You have to pity the person who pickes up this soundtrack without having seen the film and does not understand why Midler's voice goes through some serious deterioration in the final set of tracks. Compare "Stay With Me" with her cover of "When a Man Loves a Woman" and you have a sense of what might have been (or the version on "Divine Madness"). Still, there is something to be said for staying faithful to the film in this regard, which is why it is a pity the concert monologue has been sanitized. Of course, if you have seen the movie then you have to wonder why the tour de force version of Bob Seger's "Fire Down Below," which the Rose does with a bevy of female impersonators, was ommitted from the soundtrack because there is no way it would be considered the least worthy song from the film.

This album was produced by Paul Rothchild, who also did "Pearl," Joplin's final studio album, which certainly explains how Midler manages to capture the Joplin sound during the concerts recorded in the summer of 1978. You have to wonder what sort of demons Rothchild exorcised in putting this album together. The album made it to #12 on the Billboard charts while the the cover of "When a Man Loves a Woman" made it to #35 and then the title song made it to #3 as a single after Midler got her Oscar nomination (how it avoided hitting the top I do not know). In retrospect it seems there was no place for Midler to go but down after her smash film debut, but while she has never had a cinematic success to rival "The Rose," this is the film that put her on the A list of performers, a spot that she still inhabits. Final Note: I always liked "Camellia," the instrumental piece that Steve Hunter wrote as the Rose's introduction music. Like most of the songs on this album, it is one when the images of the film and the music are entwined in my mind. By Lawrance M. Bernabo


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