Bette Midler’s incredible rise to national prominence lost momentum after the release of this concert film, which failed to match her previous success with albums, concerts, singles, television specials, and theatrical features. Happily, a massive comeback began with several hit comedy movies in the mid-’80s and peaked with the tearjerker film Beaches (1988), which spawned the gigantic pop single “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Since then, Midler has achieved the rarified status of being a pop-culture institution. Understanding this context is helpful when considering Divine Madness, which deliberately encapsulates the first decade of Midler’s mainstream success. Lest anyone forget, before Midler conquered the Adult Contemporary charts with saccharine ballads, she made her mark by acting in stage musicals and by performing raunchy comedy/music routines in gay bathhouses.
Divine Madness, which contains footage captured during four shows of Midler’s 1979 concert tour, attempts to reconcile the many moods of the Divine Miss M. The movie contains boisterous musical performances, lewd stand-up comedy, and even a few serious moments, like a suite of songs from The Rose (1979), the dramatic film that made Midler a movie star. In any other context, these disparate tonalities would seem incompatible, but the point is to show viewers that Midler is a gutter-mouthed broad, a hellacious belter, a sensitive balladeer, and a tender artiste. The film’s only coherence, therefore, stems from demonstrating Midler’s incredible versatility. Given the anything-goes approach, however, it’s no surprise that some parts of Divine Madness fall flat.
A pantomime bit in which Midler portrays a bag lady is cringe-inducing because of its hokey sentimentality, and Midler’s voice frays during overblown rock numbers including her spins on Bob Seger’s “Fire Down Below” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The E Street Shuffle.” Yet Midler summons real fire on a medley of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and her performance of “The Rose,” complete with artful hand movements, is moving. Similarly, many of the crass sequences are droll if not exactly delightful. Midler seems utterly without inhibition as she interacts with the largely male audience at a theater in Pasadena. (Before exposing her bra, she good-naturedly asks the crowd: “Oh, you wanna see more of my tits?”)
Midler steamrolls through jokes in a machine-gun style borrowing from Mae West and other Vaudeville icons, and she even introduces one sequence by warning that the quality of the jokes is about to dramatically decrease. As the saying goes, it’s all in good fun, and that’s ultimately what Midler provides. Divine Madness is an exercise in upbeat escapism, sometimes in the unlikely form of a smiling diva working her way across the stage in a motorized wheelchair while she wears a starfish brassiere and a mermaid tail, her backup singers the Harlettes and her tight rock band giving every tune a sound as big as the star’s personality.
Divine Madness: GROOVY