The Rose September 30, 2017
Harry Dean Stanton
2 Hrs., 10 Mins.
ecause The Rose (1979) so closely resembles the life of Janis Joplin, the scratchy-voiced blues singer who died nearly a decade before its release, we’d like to call it exploitative. Any movie cashing in on misfortune always leaves one a little queasy, even if the cash-in is plenty persuasive.
But The Rose, so furious and so lusty, has three good reasons to fight for its
right to exist. The first of them is Bette Midler, thunderous in the Joplin role. Second is Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, throbbing and alive. Third is its soundtrack, performed masterfully. All are key. Without one of these components, The Rose might come crashing down, its final explosion an outburst of show-biz tragedy clichés.
But crash down The Rose does not. What we have in it is a musical drama that virtually glows in its visual and aural output. Maybe we expect everything we see and hear. The feature is about, after all, the downfall of a 1960s rock ’n’ roll singer who eventually falls victim to all the pressures surrounding her, some including her overbearing manager (Alan Bates), her fame, her non-stop touring, her need for drugs and alcohol, her eventual love for an everyman (Frederic Forrest) she cannot welcome into her life properly.
Yet the familiarities don’t faze us. We’re so fixated on the downward spiral our eponymous heroine tumbles down that the timeless sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll haze suddenly feels new again. We figure most of this has to do with Midler — convincingly askew and bleary-eyed in the dramatic scenes, atomic in the musical ones — and how much we think we know how her character feels.
We can feel her burnout as she begs her manager to let her take a year off; we can feel her temporary contentment as she finally finds a man who loves her for who she really is; we can feel her despair as she comes to realize that she’s never going to get out the simultaneous heaven and hell in which she’s living. But when she’s on stage, she escapes our grasp, if only because we have no idea what’s it’s like to transmute into another entity entirely when singing in front of hundreds of people.
Perhaps The Rose is an archetypal example of an only decent movie circling around a transcendent performance, like 1968’s Funny Girl or 2014’s Still Alice. The film is certainly too long, and follows Joplin’s life so obviously that it sometimes feels artistically bankrupt, relying too much on secondary material to push it forward. It especially drags during its last act, when Rose returns to her native Jacksonville, Florida for a hometown show and accelerates her downfall.
But like its protagonist, The Rose erupts when it’s prosperous, and that’s often. Aside from being among the great quasi-biopics, it might have been a standout concert film, too. Because Zsigmond’s photography bears the scorching reds of a drug-fueled, sweat-drenched Woodstock excursion, we feel thoroughly transported in the concert scenes, the already-incendiary Midler really resembling a rock goddess. That Midler is better known as a sort of modern cabaret singer only signifies just how versatile the entertainer is — no guise can diminish her capacity to leave us aghast.
The film was remastered in 2015 by the Criterion Collection, and now does it burn off the screen more than ever. So outstanding in its performances and so remarkable in its music, there’s no reason not to take in the ribald highs and mascara-stained lows of The Rose, even if its formula sometimes threatens to step in the way of its momentous power. B+