*½/**** Image C- Sound C Extras C
starring Bette Midler, Alan Bates, Frederic Forrest
screenplay by Bill Kerby and Bo Goldman
directed by Mark Rydell
by Walter Chaw Lenny by way of John Waters, Mark Rydell's The Rose is a film made obsolete by years of "Behind the Music"--this story of a Janis Joplin-inspired singer boozin' her way into a theatrical grave counts a lack of vitality and anything resembling surprise as chief among its faults. Bette Midler's performance scored an Oscar nomination in 1980, but it lands with a shrillness now that defeats its attempts at pathos and depth. Why we should care about a self-destructive blues siren with impulse control issues is one of those things unwisely taken for granted while by now, twenty-three years after the fact, the lessons of hedonism and the downward spirals of the performing kind are curiously tepid, delivered as they are with a bullhorn and a bad Otis the Town Drunk impersonation.
Rose (Midler) is a boozy honky-tonker from Florida whose whole life is that terrible Yes song about bands on the road. Her manager, Rudge (Alan Bates), mistakes Rose's fatigue for the usual bratty unreliability, placing himself among the legion of folks who take and take from Rose, and just never give anything back, the poor dear. That line of people ends at the feet of noble cowpoke chauffer Huston (Frederic Forrest), who seems to have Rose's best interests at heart--though God only knows why. Fights in diners, screaming matches at stadiums, and drive-by peepings of her all-American parents (who, inexplicably, are hanging an American flag on a clothesline to dry), all lead Rose to her big homecoming concert.
A few concert performances recorded live before an actual audience bristle with the sort of vitality that does the impossible by giving me an inkling of why it is that Midler has a fan following. Unfortunately, The Rose's concert scenes are sealed off from the rest of the film, the sense of the capricious and the delirious in Midler's stage persona lacking in her attempts at drama. Accordingly, the best moment of the film is more concert than drama, coming in a gay nightclub where drag queens do a mean impersonation of Rose to Rose's delight. It is a sequence shot with a rough vigour and a genuine ebullience that provides for the only moment in the piece where Rose's inevitable self-immolation seems more tragic than pathetic, as well as a glimpse into the potential of the material for fullness rather than caricature.
Taken from seriously degraded source material, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD presentation of The Rose is compromised by drab-looking colours (something that could be attributed to DP Vilmos Zsigmond, but I don't think so), bad grain, and, particularly in the last reel, a series of print imperfections (lines through the picture, a giant blue mark across the top third) that are distracting and disheartening. The film looks years older than films that are actually years older, with the concert footage suffering the most. The Dolby Surround soundtrack demonstrates moments of good fidelity and channel saturation mostly, and most curiously, outside of the concert sequences, where they would make the most sense. Generally speaking, the audio is just serviceable.
Director Rydell contributes a self-aggrandizing and delusional commentary track that gamely narrates the action for long stretches before falling into even longer stretches of reverent silence. Riddled with inaccuracies and stupid statements, Rydell claims The Rose is Midler's first film (it's not: she made her screen debut as much as thirteen years prior), congratulates himself for how daring the picture is for 1979 (yeah, right--I'd be stunned if anyone batted much of an eye upon its initial release after all of the societal and cinematic of upheavals of the '60s and '70s), and says that Midler's performance is a high-water mark in the history of motion pictures.
Being a big fan of his underestimated John Wayne picture The Cowboys, it came as something of a major disappointment to hear Rydell here beating his own drum, laughing at his own jokes and marvelling at his skill in guiding Midler through her bad performance. Just because the majority of people who would actually listen to a commentary track for The Rose are already fans doesn't mean they're necessarily idiots. Trailers for The Rose and fellow Fox titles All That Jazz, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, For the Boys, and "The Marilyn Monroe Diamond Collection"--which opens with a clip from Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that, by itself, has more charisma and genius than any portion of The Rose--round out the disc. Originally published: August 11, 2003.