Bette Midler exploded onto the screen with her take-no-prisoners performance in this quintessential film about fame and addiction from director Mark Rydell. Midler is the rock-and-roll singer Mary Rose Foster (known as the Rose to her legions of fans), whose romantic relationships and mental health are continuously imperiled by the demands of life on the road. Incisively scripted by Bo Goldman and beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (with assistance on the dazzling concert scenes by a host of other world-class cinematographers, including Conrad L. Hall, László Kovács, Owen Roizman, and Haskell Wexler), this is a sensitively drawn and emotionally overwhelming melodrama that made the popular singer into a movie star as well.
Show-biz tales that expose the industry's tawdry underbelly are a dime a dozen, but only a few films cogently depict the ongoing and oh-so-combustible battle between art and commerce that often shatters the lives of sensitive performers. 'The Rose' is one of those rare pictures, yet unlike the genre's gold standard, 'A Star Is Born,' director Mark Rydell's blistering, warts-and-all portrait of late-1960s rock-'n'-roll doesn't resort to romantic hokum to soften its message. On the contrary, non-stop pain, angst, and disillusionment fuel this runaway train, with only fleeting glimmers of humor and hope providing a respite from the emotional torrent. At every opportunity, Rydell throws gasoline on the story's already potent flames, ramping up intensity and producing a raw, in-your-face look at the triumphs, tragedies, endless manipulations, and psychedelic insanity of the music world. 'The Rose' is shamelessly audacious and over-the top, but then again, so is rock-'n'-roll.
Loosely based on the rollercoaster existence of legendary singer Janis Joplin, who lived a wild, drug-dependent life until she burned herself out at age 27, 'The Rose' follows the equally reckless escapades of rock and blues vocalist Mary Rose Foster (Bette Midler) - a.k.a. The Rose - as she tours the U.S. with her loyal band and hard-driving manager, Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates), who wants to milk his prized client and lucrative meal ticket for all she's worth. On stage, Rose is brassy and bawdy, an electric force of nature who incites her audiences to the brink of hysteria while preaching the gospel of "drugs, sex, and rock-'n'-roll." Yet despite her phenomenal success, the off-stage Rose remains emotionally fragile and insecure about her talent, constantly seeking approval, validation, and love, even as her blustery temperament and prima donna behavior alienate those she holds dear.
She's also exhausted and lonely. The endless grind of the road has sapped Rose's energy, spirit, and desire to perform ("I just can't dredge up the sincerity anymore"), prompting the depleted diva to implore the heartless Rudge to let her take a year off to rest her battered body and shredded voice. But her greedy and opportunistic Svengali pressures her to soldier on, sparking a brazen rebellion and passionate attachment to Huston Dyer (Frederic Forrest), an AWOL army sergeant working as a chauffeur whom she meets at a vulnerable moment and instantly envisions as her knight in shining armor. For the first time, someone loves Rose for who she is not what she is, but weathering her outbursts, abuse, and instability constantly tests Huston's mettle and commitment.
Amid all this strife, an important concert in Rose's hometown looms on the horizon. For Rose, it's a chance to triumphantly return to her roots, flaunt her success, and bask in the adulation of those who mistreated her in her youth. And for Rudge, it's more money in the coffers. Yet as the date creeps closer, Rose begins to fall apart, as her personal demons, indignant attitude, and self-destructive tendencies conspire against her.
Watching 'The Rose,' one can't help but relate it not only to Joplin, but also other tragic vocalists like Judy Garland, who buckled under the strain of too much work and was often exploited by the industry that supposedly revered her. Like Garland - and, to a lesser extent, Whitney Houston - Rose is torn between her love of her career (and the adulation, affirmation, and riches it brings her) and her desire to lead a normal life. We always want what we can't have, yet as much as Rose professes to despise her current existence, she's just as hopelessly addicted to it as she is to the mind-altering substances that help get her through the day.
Rydell does a great job depicting the stresses that drag Rose down and the personalities who disrespect, denigrate, and take advantage of her. Yet he also revels in the crazier aspects of Rose's life and her affinity for the absurd...something the titular character shares with the actress who portrays her. A buoyant sequence at a drag show, where Rose performs with female impersonators aping Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Mae West, and Rose herself is a hoot, as is Rose's invasion of a male bath house. As she dodges a herd of naked old men while pursuing a fed-up Huston seeking some solace, she lets loose with a string of outrageous one-liners ("You keep watering that, honey, I know it's gonna grow!") that give us a glimpse of the playful woman within.
The concert sequences are also thrilling. Rydell hired some of the best cinematographers in the business to shoot the multi-camera setups, and the results brim with excitement and realism, providing an intimate perspective while embracing the event's frenzied atmosphere. Midler lends her voice a hard edge that often verges on raspiness, and puts forth herculean effort as she scorches such songs as 'Midnight in Memphis,' 'When a Man Loves a Woman,' 'Keep on Rockin',' 'Sold My Soul to Rock 'N' Roll,' and the passionate tour de force, 'Stay With Me.' Of course, the beautifully simple, heartbreakingly poignant title tune, which Midler sings over the end credits, soared to #3 on the Billboard pop chart and #1 on the adult contemporary chart, where it remained for five weeks. Once heard, the haunting lyrics and melody never will be forgotten.
Nor will Midler's stunning debut performance. Bold, sassy, tender, strident, and heartbreaking, her portrayal runs the gamut of emotion, but always remains disarmingly raw. At times, she goes overboard and resembles an hysterical harpy, but even at her most histrionic she's still mesmerizing to watch. And never more so than in a wrenching phone booth scene late in the picture that's eerily subdued yet packed with desperation and pathos. Phone scenes can win Oscars (Luise Rainer in 'The Great Ziegfeld' was living proof), and this one is so moving and perfectly pitched it surely helped garner Midler her Best Actress nomination. (She lost to Sally Field in 'Norma Rae.') Though Midler rages like a wounded lioness most of the time, her finest moments are the quiet ones, where her sincerity and inner beauty rise to the surface. We all know and respect her tremendous comic capabilities ('Down and Out in Beverly Hills,' 'Ruthless People,' and 'Outrageous Fortune' irrefutably prove them), but 'The Rose' reminds us Midler also can be a grand tragedienne.
Bates is masterful as well. His subtle reaction shots convey a fascinating array of emotions, and he and Midler share a crackling chemistry that ignites every scene they share. And not to be overlooked, Forrest justly earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his arresting portrayal of a regular dude swept into a maelstrom of insanity. Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Primus, and a young David Keith also impress in small but memorable roles.
Sometimes 'The Rose' is too big, too broad, and a bit too much, but just when it seems primed to go beyond the pale and flirt with caricature, it pulls itself back from the brink. Its moments of truth are many, and they resonate, thanks to the strong cast and astute direction. But without Midler, 'The Rose' would be ashamedly run of the mill. It's impossible to imagine the film without her, and her exceptional work continues to dazzle, move, and astound more than 35 years later. Without question, she's the wind beneath this movie's wings, and boy, does she soar.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Rose' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 12-page, fold-out booklet, featuring an essay by Newsweek staff writer Paula Mejia, a cast and crew listing, transfer notes, and a few color photos is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, this brand new 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Criterion was personally supervised by director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond and created in 4K resolution from the original 35 mm camera negative. The results are quite faithful to the source, but it's not a very smooth presentation. Moments of stunning clarity are offset by periods of excessive grain resulting from Zsigmond's heavy use of filters. 'The Rose' is a tricky film to properly time due to the predominance of dark scenes and rose-colored stage lighting during the concert sequences, but for the most part, this transfer flaunts excellent contrast and a marvelously vibrant color palette. Although grain is always evident (as it should be, given the film's raw, natural look), its fluctuating levels can be a bit off-putting from time to time. Details, however, are quite strong, and the slightly diffused close-ups still sport heightened levels of clarity, especially during the concert sequences, which brim with intensity. Midler's sweat, smeared make-up, and curly locks are all terrifically rendered, as are the accents and textures of her bohemian costumes. Deep black levels remain solid, while fine shadow delineation keeps crush at bay most of the time. Low-lit scenes don't exhibit any noise, and nary a speck, mark, or blotch dots the pristine print. Best of all, no digital doctoring could be detected. Though the sporadic grain fluctuations might bother some people, 'The Rose' has never looked better on home video, and the film's fans should be quite pleased with this high-quality effort from Criterion.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track "was created from the original 35 mm magnetic tracks of the original 70 mm 6 track mix." Though the track is always active - at times, almost too much so, as competing elements vie for supremacy and crowd out subtle distinctions - it really comes alive, as it should, during the concert sequences, which burst with vibrancy, detail, and terrific fidelity. The throb and strain of Midler's voice cuts through the blistering guitars and weighty bass and percussion, allowing us to truly feel the music and absorb the passion and pain behind it. Faint surround accents can be detected throughout the dramatic scenes, but most are front-based, although some nice stereo separation somewhat widens the soundscape. Crowd noise, however, bleeds nicely into the rears, and revving car engines and whirring helicopter blades heighten the track's palpable impact. DIalogue sometimes gets lost amid all the atmospherics, but most of it is clear and comprehendible, and no hiss, pops, or crackles intrude. Good sound is essential for this movie to succeed, and thankfully this potent mix does its job well.
As usual, Criterion provides a comprehensive supplemental package that enhances the viewing experience. Both new and archival material is included here.
Audio Commentary - Back in 2003, director Mark Rydell recorded this enthusiastic, mildly informative commentary in which he expresses his high regard for 'The Rose' and all the talent involved in making it. He sprinkles several interesting anecdotes throughout his discussion, which touches upon the 15-year genesis of the project, the script's daring nature (for the time period), the intricacies of shooting the live concert sequences, and Midler's energetic and amazingly intuitive portrayal. Rydell also notes how he used his Actor's Studio connections to cast many supporting parts and reveals his disdain for the term "extras," preferring to call his bit players "atmospheric artists" instead. Though this isn't the best director's commentary I've heard, those who admire 'The Rose' will find it interesting and worthwhile.
Interview: "Bette Midler on 'The Rose'" (HD, 17 minutes) - Looking regal at almost 70, the irrepressible and outspoken Midler candidly recalls the "intense" and "once in a lifetime" experiences making her breakout motion picture in this new 2015 interview. The Divine Miss M praises director Mark Rydell for his sensitivity and unending support, but has few kind words for fellow actor Harry Dean Stanton, whom she intimates was just as condescending and unpleasant as his on-screen character. Though she didn't initially like the script due to its violent nature and didn't want to do a straight Janis Joplin biopic, Midler eventually agreed to star in 'The Rose' after appropriate changes were made. She remembers shooting the grueling concert sequences ("I sang until I bled"), the song selection process, and working on her stage movement, and salutes costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond for their vital contributions.
Interview: Mark Rydell (HD, 16 minutes) - Rydell chats with his friend, filmmaker Charles Dennis, in this lively and absorbing 2014 interview that not only touches upon 'The Rose,' but also on Rydell's early experiences as a musician and actor. Among other things, he recalls how he got involved in the project, discusses the casting of Midler and the film's raw look, and ruminates on his "productive" and "staggeringly wonderful" relationship with his leading lady (as well as a notable confrontation with her pushy and possessive manager, Aaron Russo). At age 85, Rydell is sharp as a tack, and his enthusiastic, vivid recollections are a pleasure to hear.
Interview: Vilmos Zsigmond (HD, 30 minutes) - Cinematographer John Bailey questions Zsigmond on a variety of topics relating to 'The Rose' specifically and 1970s films in general. Zsigmond talks extensively about lighting, his fondness for silhouettes and filters, and penchant for improvisation on the set. He recalls how several acclaimed directors of photography were hired to operate the multiple cameras used during the climactic concert sequence, cites his favorite scenes in 'The Rose,' and discusses how he consciously sought a more natural, less Hollywood look for the movie. Zsigmond is one of the industry's true legends, and those interested in the technical side of filmmaking will certainly appreciate his insights and perspective.
Vintage TV Clip from NBC's 'Today' (HD, 5 minutes) - Co-host Tom Brokaw interviews both Rydell and Midler on one of the film's Manhattan locations during the shooting of an early scene. Midler's comments are especially colorful, and it's interesting to see Rydell in action directing his leading lady, who doesn't seem satisfied with her work. This piece was originally broadcast on 'Today' on June 27, 1978.
Vintage TV Clip: Bette Midler and Gene Shalit (HD, 14 minutes) - Almost a year-and-a-half later, film critic Gene Shalit sat down with Midler for an extensive NBC News interview that was broadcast over two nights in November, 1979. Midler chats freely about drugs and alcohol, her fierce dedication to her work, the importance of a sense of humor, her affinity for New York's bustling lifestyle, and how she found the more intimate scenes in 'The Rose' the most difficult. She also expresses her love of blues singing and downplays the movie's Janis Joplin connection in this captivating profile.
'The Rose' hits us like a freight train as it examines the raucous, dirty, and psychedelic world of 1960s rock-'n'-roll as seen through the glazed eyes of its shattered heroine. It also showcases Bette Midler in a tour de force performance that tears up the screen both musically and dramatically. Excellent supporting work from a stellar cast enhances Mark Rydell's raw, real, and riveting film, while heightening the impact of this outrageous and devastating portrait of a wild and tortured spirit. Criterion's Blu-ray presentation features strong video and audio transfers and a marvelous array of supplements, all of which help this excellent, emotionally charged motion picture earn a high and hearty recommendation.