Musicals are my ultimate guilty pleasure. Often threadbare plots are orchestrated around giving people the opportunity to sing and dance in often illogical and unrealistic fashion, but I eat it up like it’s going out of style. A lot of this (and so much of my personality) can be attributed to the fact that one of the first movies I can remember watching was Grease, and it’s soundtrack was also one of the first albums I can remember owning (along with Savage Garden’s self-titled LP). The sheer theatricality and enthusiasm of the productions more often than not makes up for stories that don’t particularly work and musical numbers that make no sense in the context of the film’s universe. However, for every musical I love, there are so many I can’t stand like Gypsy as the most recent (in terms of my seeing it) example. Even good music can’t save the humdrum plot or the music simply wasn’t good either. I just finished watching 1979’s The Rose which is a thinly veiled biography of Janis Joplin, and in a rare subversion of most musicals that I dislike, I found myself enthralled with Bette Midler’s fiery performance and the stellar soundtrack while simultaneously loathing practically every second of the cliched and trite story that formed the core of this overly long film.
As mentioned, The Rose is the tragic story of Janis Joplin (for who else could this film possibly be about) although Bette Midler’s character, the titular Rose, is never called Janis and is someone else entirely. The Rose is a rock and roll legend who is on a whirl-wind national tour at the height of her popularity. However, the Rose has grown tired of her life of booze, drugs, and constant work and wants to take a year off. Her manager Rudge (Alan Bates) is a controlling and greedy man who is willing to sacrifice the Rose’s well-being in order to make money and works her to near exhaustion as well as pushing more drugs and booze on her. The Roses’s life is changed for the better when she meets a cab driver named Huston who tries to give her joy in life outside of her work as well as legitimate love and affection which she hasn’t had in years. However, the demands of her career and fame work to drive a wedge in their relationship as well as conspire towards Rose’s ultimate downfall.
Bette Midler was spectacular in this role. I might have hated 75% of this film but when she was putting her performance in all four gears, she was just a sight to behold. Previous to this film, my knowledge of Bette Midler was restricted to Hocus Pocus and her guest role on Seinfeld. I never knew the kind of emotional depths and tragic vulnerability that she was capable of achieving. Also, her voice just blew me away. The film’s only real saving grace outside of Midler was the film’s soundtrack and Bette Midler has a lot to do with the success there. She does a cover of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” that I almost prefer to the original version. Frederic Forest does a good job as the enigmatic Huston who is the anchor holding Rose down to the sane world. There was a natural chemistry between the two stars that added a layer of believability to their romance that was sorely missing from the rest of the film.
Now, here are the problems with the film. With the exception of the Rose (who is still frustratingly ill-defined), every single character in this film is more of a caricature of an established type than a fully formed creation. Her manager Rudge is so villainous and evil that he really becomes camp rather than someone I can believe to have really existed. Huston seems to be the prototypical down-to-earth country boy so completely that I almost expect that they stole an extra off of a John Ford film. There’s only one scene where he really seems to be as fallible as anyone else in the film. Also, the film’s subject matter was handled in such a heavy-handed manner that there was no chance for any subtlety in the production. The way it handled addiction and the pressures of fame often made me think I had accidentally put on a PBS special rather than a feature film. The film came off as so preachy and cliche that I could never lose myself in the story taking place on screen.
This is one of those films that I can only really recommend for academic reasons. For students of film, Bette Midler’s performance is spectacular and it deserves some analysis. However, the film itself manages to drain all of the joy I get from her bravado. This movie’s score is a balance between how much I loved Bette Midler and how much I despised virtually every other aspect of the film. When I first added this movie to my blog, I thought it was a remake of Gypsy because I thought Bette Midler was in a remake of that film. When it turned out to be entirely different subject matter, I became less worried about the film. I honestly think I would have enjoyed sitting through another version of a musical I already don’t like very much. In summation, only serious students of film or those that love Bette Midler should subject themselves to the boring torture that is this bloated and trite feature.
Final Score: C+