Monday, July 30, 2012

The Rose (1979)

          Beautiful in moments, harrowing in others, and soulful despite a derivative origin and a preponderance of clichés, The Rose is best remembered as the vehicle that drove singer/actress Bette Midler to international superstardom. In addition to providing Midler with her biggest hit song to date (the film’s poetic title track), The Rose earned the entertainer her first Oscar nomination. Combined with several other Oscar nods and a sold box-0ffice performance, this amount of success represented an unlikely turn of events for a project that seemed destined to fail. Originally developed as a biopic of the late, great rock singer Janis Joplin, the project was fictionalized when negotiations for the use of Joplin’s likeness and music came to naught; furthermore, the producers failed to hire eccentric British director Ken Russell, who had scored a major hit with the rock musical Tommy (1975) and therefore seemed the safe bet for this sort of material.
          Yet these setbacks turned out to be fortuitous, since moving away from Joplin’s life story allowed the screenwriters to create a self-contained mythos for their protagonist, and losing Russell led the producers to Mark Rydell, whose sensitive direction grounds the movie in a way Russell never would have attempted. None of this is to say The Rose is a great movie—quite the contrary, it’s rather average in terms of narrative content, since the storyline essentially throws various rock & roll signifiers into a Cuisinart. However, the picture has coherence thanks to Midler’s impassioned performance, Rydell’s unwavering focus on the tragedy of a performer’s downward spiral, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s elegant cinematography. So, even though The Rose is a simultaneously tarted-up and watered-down version of Joplin’s journey, it’s emotionally arresting.
          The actual plot is simple—as raunchy blues/rock singer Mary Rose Foster becomes famous, the pressure to deliver consistent success drives her toward drinking, drugs, and philandering. By the time she’s a superstar known simply as “The Rose,” her fragile self-image has crumbled, so she rushes toward self-destructive oblivion. The ineffectual men sharing her life include Houston Dyer (Frederick Forrest), a sweet boyfriend whose affections aren’t enough to pull Mary Rose back from the brink, and Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates), a domineering manager whose ambition and greed outstrip his concern for Mary Rose’s welfare.
          The Rose takes its seediness seriously, so Midler is often presented as unattractively as possible, both in terms of her slovenly physical appearance and her screeching tirades during binges. Midler makes these unseemly aspects watchable with the commitment of her acting, though just barely so—were it not for Midler’s innate likability, which shines through even at the worst of times, Mary Rose would be a completely unsympathetic character. After all, one can’t help but ask why Mary Rose doesn’t simply quit when things get awful. Alas, The Rose doesn’t go that deep, so we’re left with a finely textured surface—which is probably enough, at least for a single viewing.
          As for the music, it’s a mixed bag, even though Midler’s vocal performances are astounding from start to finish. The best hard rockers are covers of “real” songs (“Fire Down Below,” “Stay With Me,” “When a Man Loves a Woman”), but the ersatz numbers composed for the movie work fine. And if the title song is a bit too gentle for a Joplin-esque singer’s set list, that’s easy to overlook since Midler’s rendition has so much feeling.

The Rose: GROOVY

1 comment:

Tommy Ross said...

Gonna have to pull this one off the shelf and take a look, it's been a long time lol. When I think of this movie, two great performances come to mind- Alan Bates is excellent as the manager and Frederick Forrest as the driver/boyfriend, one of my fav roles of his, but when is he not good!?