Wednesday, October 28, 2009

ABBA: The Movie (1977)

Thank you for the music, but no thanks to the rest.

In 1977 Swedish pop group ABBA were riding high. They had released a hit album per year since 1973, culminating in 1976's worldwide smash Dancing Queen (from Arrival), which catapulted them to superstar status.

A movie was a logical next step.

What Happens:

In March of 1977, ABBA came to Australia for a weeklong tour. The band were especially popular there with 6 number one singles and an additional 4 in the top ten, more than even in their homeland.

Filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom (yes, him) came along to document the event, but ABBA: The Movie is not a documentary, nor is it a concert. Instead, it's a combination of both, with a fictional story thrown in for good measure.

The movie's main character is Ashley Wallace, (Robert Hughes) a DJ at an country music station in Sydney, Australia. His boss assigns him to get an "exclusive in-depth interview" with ABBA to air a week hence. Why ABBA, on a country station? Well, because "the pop scene's never been touched like this before." I think that really means, "screw our format, let's cash in on this phenomenon."

It turns out that the boss' trust in Ashley is misplaced, because Ashley has no idea how to get an interview with a super group. His first approach is to try to meet the band as their plane lands, along with hundreds of press members and fans. Ummm, yeah, that's not going to work. He finds out that there'll be a press conference, so he drives across town, yelling out his window at other drivers, asking how to get there. Also, as he drives, he realizes how deep Sydney is in ABBAmania. People everywhere are wearing shirts and holding signs for the band.

While this madcap scene is taking place, we cut to the already-in-progress conference, where Bjorn (guy #1), Benny (guy #2), Agnetha (the blonde one), and Frida (the red head) are handling the usual questions. No, they don't drink or do drugs. They don't like touring but they do it for the fans. The best is when one reporter asks Agnetha how she feels about winning a "sexiest bottom" award. She responds, "How can I answer that? I haven't seen it." (You, however, can judge for yourself in the very next scene, when she wears skintight white pants).

Of course Ashley misses the press conference, so he decides to go to their concert that night, but genius that he is, he fails to bring his press pass or realize that he might need a ticket to get in to the sold out show. While this goes on, the film treats us to generous footage of ABBA performing Tiger, S.O.S., and Money Money Money. During the latter, Hallstrom cleverly cuts in footage of ABBA merchandise, including drinking glasses, buttons, and books.

The next day Ashley goes to the Sydney Opera House and basically accosts the band while they are in the midst of a photo shoot. At this point two things are becoming clear. One is that Ashley is pretty much an idiot, and two is that the film is going to run this he-can't-get-an-interview thing into the ground. As evidence, the next scene finds Ashley calling his boss and saying he needs more time with the band, and needs to follow them to their next stop, Perth.

And so it goes. Ashley follows ABBA from Perth to Adelaide to Melbourne, each time failing to connect with the band, each time approaching them in the stupidest way possible (sneaking backstage and asking random people "Have you seen ABBA?", for instance). Interspersed throughout is concert footage from the Australian tour (though it doesn't always match up with the "story"). Songs performed include He Is Your Brother, Waterloo, Mamma Mia, Rock Me, I've Been Waiting For You, Get On the Carousel, I Kissed the Teacher, I'm a Marionette, Fernando, Dancing Queen, and So Long.

To be fair, the movie does throw in some other tricks as it goes on. When Ashley realizes he's not going to get enough of an interview with ABBA to fill up two hours, he starts doing people-on-the-street interviews about the band. The first round of these result in an inordinate number of people saying they enjoy the band because they are "clean." Later, he interviews children about the group. Some say they like ABBA's songs "because they're good," but one says he doesn't care for them because "they show off and wear too many clothes" (he obviously hasn't seen the footage of Frida's ass cheeks hanging out on Why Did It Have To Be Me). The interviews culminate with a group of young ballet students singing along to Ring Ring.

Also breaking from the usual format are a couple of dream sequences that double as music videos. The most ridiculous is The Name of the Game, which finds Ashley fantasizing about having all access to the band. At first he's enjoying a picnic with the four of them, then his he's a psychiatrist and Agnetha is lying on his couch. Hmmm. He goes on to imagine himself enjoying a fancy candlelit dinner with the whole group, hanging out in a western bar, going golfing, and sailing. Ashley's fantasies are heavy on the girls (though he gives Benny hugs several times throughout the sequence), and he does wake up somewhat sweaty, so conclude what you will.

At the 11th hour, after multiple failures, Ashley gets smart and approaches the band's manager, Stig Andersson, about an interview. Stig agrees to it, for the next day at 10 AM. Ashley, though, forgets to set his alarm and misses the interview. Then, in a dictionary definition of the term "dumb luck" he ends up on an elevator with the band and gets his interview.

The movie ends with Thank You For the Music, presented in multiple formats (with shots of Australian fans, the group in the studio recording, and on stage performing). The end.

What Really Happens:

Executive #1: Hey, this ABBA thing is pretty lucrative right now. Let's make a motion picture.

Executive #2: Great idea. Can the band members act?

Executive #1: Um, well, not really. And English isn't their first language.

Executive #2: That's okay, how about a concert film?

Executive #1: I thought about that, but what if kids just go see that movie instead of actually going to an ABBA show? We'd be robbing Bjorn to pay Benny.

Execuitve #2: Okay, what if we do a combination of the two? We'll bang out a script that allows the band to make minimal non-musical contributions.

Executive #1: Bingo!

Making a film where you have to work around your main subject is nothing new. See Can't Stop the Music, That's the Way of the World, or Rock Around the Clock for evidence. The tactic can work, but you have to put a compelling, appealing story in place to make it happen. ABBA: The Movie, fails to do that.

If you couldn't tell, the scenes with Ashely the DJ drag the film down (and unfortunately that accounts for about 50% of the movie). For one, the character has zero appeal or personality. He just seems annoyed and harried most of the time. Plus, he keeps making boneheaded decisions. People making stupid decisions can (and often does) make for good entertainment, but in this case it's just tedious. By the film's halfway point, I was actively rooting for him to fail in his quest to get an interview.

Even worse, when the film gets to that point it's been building to the whole time, Ashley's "gut-level dialogue" with the band, we don't even get to see it. Instead, the film goes into a weird video for the song Eagle. This involves footage of a soaring eagle, naturally. The rest of it is Agnetha and Frida hanging out in a colorful metallic wind tunnel.

It's too bad, because the concert footage is very well-filmed, and the performances by the band are sharp. Even the few non-musical scenes that feature the band are good. Beyond the press conference, there's a scene with the four of them in a hotel room chuckling over the press about their first night's show, including a bogus account of their supposed lodging demands. Best line: "What does kinky mean?" Hallstrom clearly would have been better off doing a straight up documentary / concert film hybrid.

Comments and Questions:

Lasse Hallstrom, in case you don't know, is the Swedish Oscar-nominated director of such hearty fare as My Life As A Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News, and Chocolat. ABBA: The Movie was his second film, and not one that he received any Oscar nominations for.

Ashley's sign-off catchphrase is "what you see is what you get," which is kind of strange for radio, if you think about it.

At this point in their careers, the band wore white warm-up jackets, each with an A (the girls) or B (the guys) in red on the back.

Watch for the creepy personal trainer in the rainbow suspenders. That guy could get his own horror movie franchise.

In the concert sequences, the number of musicians on stage is staggering. You thought Parliment / Funkadelic had a lot of members? There are at least 10 players (drummers, horns, basses, guitars, keys, back-up singers) in addition to the four core members, and that doesn't include the string section and a creepy clown that serves as an emcee.

I like that Hallstrom didn't present a sunny, public relations view of ABBA. As mentioned, not all of Ashley's on-the-street interviews are necessarily positive. There's also a non sequiter scene at the end of the movie where Ashley's cabbie complains about the previous night's concert. He says it featured "too many white lights" and that the band "took their clothes off."

In Conclusion:

As loathe as I am to say it this is another one of those films it's hard to completely dismiss. Yes, it's half flawed, but it IS interesting if you want to witness a pop music juggernaut in action. If you're only looking to celebrate the music of ABBA, you're probably better off with Mamma Mia.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Stop Making Sense (1984)

And nothing is better than that. Is it?

My second favorite film of the Baby, I'm a Star project, and the best concert film ever made is the result of a band at the height of their performing prowess, a frontman leader with a design background, and an A-list director. Stop Making Sense is so good, it deserves a running diary (with apologies to Bill Simmons). These are my thoughts, recorded live as I watched.

00:00:15 The distinctive, hand-written credits roll silently, over a greyish background. I feel like I'm about to watch a David Lynch movie.

00:00:40 Credits read, "Conceived by the stage by David Byrne." What that means is that all the crazy, innovative sequencing, lighting, and backdrops came out of David Byrne's head. It also means that concerts can and should do more than they do. It's 25 years later and we've still got boring old light shows.

00:01:10 Directed by Jonathan Demme. At this point, he'd been directing for 10 years, but his star hadn't really risen. He'd make Something Wild the two years after Stop Making Sense, followed by a couple of little films called Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. Maybe you've heard of them.

00:01:20 Byrne appears, but we only see his shoes, walking out on to the stage. He sets down a boombox, steps up to the mic and says, "Hi, I've got a tape I'd like to play for you." He starts up the simple drum machine beat, and begins to play along with an acoustic guitar. The song is Psycho Killer. Qu'est que ce?

00:02:25 A brief shot of the audience, just to let you know they're there. Unlike many concert films, Stop Making Sense doesn't indulge in shots of fans enjoying the music (at least until the end of the movie). It makes you feel more like you're actually there.

00:02:35 We see that the stage is bare, with no curtain. Various behind-scenes-materials (boxes, ladders) can be seen, and the lighting is brightly stark.

00:05:03 Byrne reels around the stage to the beat, even as it breaks down. This is very much an influence of early hip-hop, I'm guessing.

00:05:40 Stage hands begin to set up behind Byrne even as he finishes the song.

00:06:31 Bassist Tina Weymouth enters, and the duo strike up one of the prettiest Talking Heads songs there is, Heaven.

00:07:25 "The band in Heaven / They play my favorite song / Play it one more time / Play it all night long."

00:07:46 Disembodied harmonies come in. I had always been under the impression that Tina was singing them, but I noticed this time, for the first time, that she has no mic. I assume one of the background singers was doing it offstage, but the film gives no evidence of this.

00:10:23 Drummer Chris Frantz (Weymouth's husband) enters. He's excited to be there. The trio starts up with Thank You For Sending Me An Angel, from the band's second album More Songs About Buildings and Food. At this point the concert / film are playing out like a strange little origin story of the band, since these three were the original founders.

00:12:51 Guitarist Jerry Harrison enters and they go into the mildly funky Found a Job. The song really shows off their chemistry and familiarity, especially when a wide shot shows Byrne, Harrison, and Weymouth's legs and hips in synch with the song's rhythm as they play.

00:16:27 Harrison switches to keys, and backup vocalists Edna Hope and Lynn Mabry come out, along with percussionist Steve Scales. The septet launch into Slippery People, from the band's then-new album Speaking In Tongues.

00:16:39 A black backdrop falls behind the band.

00:18:03 Byrne gets a little smirk on his face in response Hope and Mabry's singing. You can tell he likes what he hears.

00:19:18 Byrne does a dance that's reminiscent of GOB's imitation of a chicken on Arrested Development, and the two singers copy him.

00:20:40 As the song climaxes, Frantz appears to be one of the happiest men alive!

00:21:10 The band's line-up becomes complete with the addition of guitarist Alex Weir and keyboardist Bernie Worrell. In case you're counting, we're up to nine members, and five of them are black! The new monster-sized Talking Heads let loose with Burning Down the House.

00:24:45 Jerry (back on guitar) awkwardly attempts to dance with Edna and Lynn.

00:25:30 Life During Wartime begins. I'm finding it difficult to describe just how much energy and joy is pouring out of the band at this point. Byrne especially is going nuts during this song. He runs in place with the rest of the standing members of the band, does the twist, moves like a belly dancer, runs circles around the mic, falls on the floor and convulses, and does laps around the stage set-up. He must have been in fantastic physical shape.

00:30:02 Frantz can be seen singing along with the song's lyrics even though he doesn't have a mic. I love it when non-singing band members do that. I think it shows they really enjoy their own music.

oo:31:15 The song ends. Byrne to the audience: "Does anybody have any questions?"

00:31:30 An extended pause begins. This makes it feel like a real show, where you wait for set-up. But when we come back it's definitely a different night (the film was edited together from three different concerts). Frantz and Weymouth are wearing different clothes, and Byrne is put back together (his hair had become loose, his shirt untucked, etc. on the last song).

00:33:00 Making Flippy Floppy, another song from Speaking In Tongues, begins.

00:34:50 "Our president's crazy / Did you hear what he said?!" Ahh, the Reagan years. And the W years.

00:37:04 The backdrop changes from black to red, and the futuristic blues tune Swamp begins.

00:39:40 Is it just me, or is David Byrne kind of like a creepy version of Mr. Rogers?

00:41:40 The lighting changes again with the new song What A Day That Was (the song is actually not a Talking Heads song; it came from Byrne's solo project The Catherine Wheel), with very stark under lighting on Byrne's face. It's like when you shine a flashlight under your face to tell a ghost story. When the camera goes back for a wide shot, the effect creates huge shadows of the band members on the back panels. It's very cool.

00:47:32 I hate to have to be the one to point this out, but Hope and Mabry are not wearing bras.

00:48:10 My favorite Talking Heads song, This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody), begins. There's now a standing lamp on stage, and the backdrop is flashing pictures of things like books, furniture, landscapes, cityscapes, and body parts. The stage feels very warm.

00:49:48 I just realized that Byrne has those pointy Star Trek sideburns.

00:50:09 Strange moment where Weymouth looks lovingly at Byrne, Hope, and Mabry as they harmonize.

00:52:49 Byrne dances with the lamp. It makes me think of Steve Carell in Anchorman. "I love lamp."

00:53:46 Once In a Lifetime. Byrne is wearing boxy nerdy glasses and seems intent on recreating the video, with the convulsions, contortions, hand chopping, and head-hitting.

00:59:30 In order to give Byrne a breather, the Tom Tom Club (a side project featuring Frantz and Weymouth) take over and do Genius of Love, the song that has since become an R & B and hip hop sampling favorite, most notably on Mariah Carey's Fantasy.

01:01:30 I just noticed that Weymouth bears an uncanny resemblance to Lex Luthor's girlfriend, Miss Teschmacher, in Superman: The Movie.

01:02:17 Kurtis Blow shout-out.

01:02:32 James Brown shout-out.

01:03:31 Weymouth does a freaky spider dance.

01:04:07 Frantz: "We're going to change back into the Talking Heads."

01:04:35 The moment we've been waiting for arrives. It's the debut of the BIG SUIT! Byrne looks sublimely ridiculous as a blazing version of Girlfriend Is Better begins. A stage hand walks around with a spotlight and shines it below various band members to cast huge shadows on the backdrop.

1:08:30 "As we get older / And stop making sense." We have a title!

1:08:35 Byrne holds the mic out to the camera as if asking it to sing along.

1:09:50 A greenish/blue light bathes the stage as the band eases into their version of the Reverend Al Green's Take Me To the River.

1:12:50 In another homage to James Brown, Steve Scales plays the hype man: "Y'all ready?!"

1:13:24 Byrne has doffed the coat of the BIG SUIT, but is still wearing the pants. We can see Mabry laughing at the sight of this.

1:14:51 Byrne introduces the band members while wearing a red cap someone has thrown on stage.

1:16:50 Byrne takes off the cap and throws it. It lands on Frantz's drum set.

1:17:53 The final song, Crosseyed and Painless (from the band's most critically-acclaimed album, Remain In Light), begins with Byrne jamming on the guitar and playing a slowed-down instrumental version of the song's chorus before launching into its regular high-tempo self.

1:20:06 "Facts don't do what I want them to."

1:24:00 The first extended shots of the audience, dancing in the aisles. A couple of things to look for: 1) The mix of white and black fans at the concert. Very few bands these days cross over in this way. 2) The kid with the stuffed unicorn.

1:24:45 As the band jams the song's coda, the stage crew members come out to get props.

1:25:11 Chris Frantz throws his drum sticks to the audience, because it's always a good idea to throw hard wood projectiles into crowds of people.

1:26:27 Those of you hoping for an encore will be disappointed. That's the show. Credits roll.

1:26:51 An actual credit: "Mr. Byrne's big suit built by Gail Blacker."

1:27:40 No music on the credits, just a shot of the stage, now bare once again. And thus ends the best concert film ever made. Of course this statement is contingent on 1) you actually enjoying the Talking Heads' music, and 2) there not being a concert film you enjoy more than this one.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

U2: Rattle and Hum (1988)

Tryin' to throw their arms around the world...

In 1986 U2 released the biggest album of their career. It was called The Joshua Tree and it has sold 25 million copies worldwide, won two Grammys, and spawned two number one songs, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For and With Or Without You (the album's other standout, Where the Streets Have No Name only made it to a measly 13 on the charts).

U2 needed something impressive to follow this up, so while on their 1987 U.S. Joshua Tree tour, a film crew followed the band and documented not only their triumphant concerts, but also their exploration of America and the recording of new songs.

The whole shebang was released as a film and a soundtrack album, both called Rattle and Hum.

What Happens:

Rattle and Hum straddles the line between documentary and concert film, more often than not falling on the side of the latter. Roughly 80% of the movie is footage from shows in Denver, Colorado and Tempe, Arizona. And since this was the Joshua Tree tour, 7 of the 11 songs from that album are featured in the film. Along with them is a mix of older classics (Bad, MLK, Sunday Bloody Sunday, and Pride (In the Name of Love)) and covers of classic rock tunes (Helter Skelter, All Along the Watchtower).

The rest of the film consists of very brief interview snippets, a "candid" backstage moment, studio performances of new songs (Desire, Van Demian's Land), and a visit to Memphis. The band were busy at the latter, finding time to visit to Graceland, record Angel of Harlem at the famous Sun Studios where Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. first made their names, and sit by the interstate and watch the cars. There's also an extended sequence documenting the recording of When Love Comes to Town with B.B.King.

What Really Happens:

Since it is a film about U2, Rattle and Hum features some very good performance sequences and some genuinely interesting documentary footage. But since it is a film about U2, the movie also features over-the-top theatrics and strangely stilted moments.

While in Harlem, the band visit the New Voices of Freedom, a gospel choir, and sit in with them for a stirring version of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. As contrived as that may seem, it works, especially with the amazing acoustics of a church elevating everyone's performance.

The performance of Sunday Bloody Sunday is passionate and firey for good reason. It took place on the day that 11 people were killed in Enniskillen, Ireland in a Remembrance Day bombing by the Irish Republican Army. Mid-song, Bono goes on an angry, but well-spoken rant against the events, at one point shouting, "Fuck the revolution!" In a brief interview snippet in the film he seems embarrassed and wonders aloud if it should even be included in the film. I'm glad it was. Despite their lyrics, this was the first time many Americans became aware the political activist side of the band, and while it served them well on this occasion, it doesn't later. See below.

In terms of documentary moments I liked, I was fascinated by the visit to Graceland. It wasn't so much the oddity or social commentary of it as it was drummer Larry Mullin Jr.'s interview about the experience. He seems to have been genuinely moved, and he speaks at length (well, at least by the interview standards of this film) about his love for Elvis (he even has a similar haircut). He gets the heebie jeebies about Elvis' grave being on the premises, and there's an extended shot of him looking uncomfortable while talking about it.

The rehearsal and recording with legendary blues guitarist and singer B.B.King is not especially insightful except for the moment during rehearsals when B.B. admits that he's "horrible with chords." Bono seems taken aback, but gamely replies that the Edge will take care of all the chords.

Another revealing moment comes via bassist Adam Clayton. When asked about the film's purpose, he says it's documenting a musical journey, and that all bands go through stages in their career, and that Rattle and Hum captures them at this particular stage. "We're not the same band that recorded War," he says. Later, David "the Edge" Evans adds, "Music can get so boring, so conservative, so predictable." Is it any wonder that the 10 years following the film found the band experimenting heavily and constantly reinventing themselves?

Bono is curiously quiet during the interview segments. Maybe that's because he saves it all up for the stage.

To whit, he's responsible for some of the film's less worthwhile performances. During both Silver and Gold and Bullet the Blue Sky, he goes off on didactic screeds against apartheid and televangelism respectively. I have no problem with his political stances, I just don't think we need to hear them in the middle of a rock concert. At least put them in the lyrics and don't bother with the VH1 Storytellers thing. It's that kind of sermonizing that makes the band seem pretentious, like they're doing something more than playing songs for people to enjoy. The film doesn't do much to lessen that particular view.

Bono announcing a mediocre version of Helter Skelter with the comment, "This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles; we're stealin' it back" doesn't help. Nor does the sequence that finds the band on a tour bus in San Fransisco working out a cover of Dylan's All Along the Watchtower. We're made to think that this is the first time the band are even considering doing the song (the Edge doesn't even know the chords yet!), but the film follows this with the band at and outdoor concert performing the song perfectly. The way the scenes flow, we're made to think they stepped off the bus and nailed the song with no rehearsal. Personally, I think that was the magic of the movies right there.

But the films hands-down oddest, most stilted, most fishy-smelling scene takes place after a concert performance of In God's Country. The band rush off stage and gather in the wings. I'm going to try to transcribe it for you:

Bono to Larry: "Really smashing the cymbals there!"
Adam asks a stage hand for a tissue, even though the box is clearly within his reach.
Bono to Adam: "On Love Comes to Town, watch the third verse, not the first, not the second."
Adam: "We should all be looking at Larry?"
Larry: "Edge is on a completely different timing as usual." The Edge smiles as they walk back out.

I might have missed some of the subtitles, but that's the gist of it. I watched this scene four times and went through a host of emotions, from confusion to denial to anger to bafflement. I didn't find it genuine at all. Every time I watch it it seems more and more like a busted improv skit, like the film director told them to pretend they were working out the encore, when really they just wanted to stand around, take a drink or two, and catch their breath.

Questions and Comments:

When they were in Memphis why didn't they visit the site of MLK's assassination and juxtapose it with the performances of MLK and Pride (In the Name of Love) (which features the lyrics, "early morning / April 4, shots ring out in a Memphis sky")? Would that have made too much sense?

One of the band's best songs, All I Want is You, plays over the credits. If you're talking from a pure filmmaking standpoint, Reality Bites used it better.

Like the Wizard of Oz, the movie features a sudden switch to color. Unlike the Wizard of Oz, the switch serves no real purpose.

I've been regularly listening to the song Where the Streets Have No Name for 23 of my 32 years and I never before realized that the lyric was "still building and burning down love." I always thought it was "burning them down." I like my way better.

Ever wonder why Bono is in a sling during the scene in the church with the gospel choir? It's because he fell and disloacted his arm earlier in the tour. Also, that poster image with him shining a spotlight on the Edge? Apparently during this routine one night Bono fell backwards and the light hit him in the chin, leaving a scar. Unfortunately, neither of these incidents are in the film.

Rattle and Hum didn't catapult director Phil Joanou to fame. According the the Internet Movie Database, his most notable resume entries are the Rock film Gridiron Gang and an episode of 3rd Rock From the Sun.

During the aforementioned San Fransisco performance of All Along the Watchtower, Bono runs up to a huge sculpture mid-song, and spray paints on it. City authorities weren't too happy, and the band later issued an apology. So, a socially conscious band like U2 must have had a good reason for defacing someone else's artwork, right? The message Bono wrote on the statue must have been a call for world peace, or a deep philosophical thought, right? Uh, no. Here's what he wrote: "Rock 'n roll stops the traffic."

Where were two of the better songs from the Rattle and Hum album, Hawkmoon 269 and God Part II?

In Conclusion:

Critics found Rattle and Hum to be self-indulgent, and it didn't exactly burn up the box office. But most U2 fans regard it fondly. And that's a good summary of the film. It doesn't belong anywhere near the top of a list of great pop music movies, but as a document of an important band at their apex, it's invaluable.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Rose (1979)

By any other name...

I had no idea what to expect from The Rose. All I knew was that it starred Bette Midler as a musician and featured a song called The Rose. I suppose, if pressed, I would have told you that it was a semi autobiographical story about Midler herself, and that the songs would mostly be maudlin showtunes and classic pop covers.

Boy, was I wrong.

What Happens:

Midler plays Mary Rose Foster, a balls-out rock 'n roll singer at the height of her fame. After a brief, wordless opening scene that hints at sadness to come, the film finds Rose in the midst of a 1969 world tour.

After a raucous show in New York, Rose meets with her British manager Rudge (Alan Bates) and tells him that she needs a year off. Fearing his wallet suddenly becoming lighter, he argues vigorously against the idea. As a pep talk he calls her, “one of the best singer ladies in the history of the world.” At a subsequent press conference, she turns it on for the media, but mentions her year off.

The tour continues, and though we learn that Rose has beat a heroin addiction, she is still drinking heavily, often on stage. But on stage is also seemingly the only place where she’s in control of everything. She expresses her feelings about being a woman (“we’re waitresses in the banquet of life”) and her exercise plan (“drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll”).

Right after the second New York show, Rudge rushes Rose off to a meeting with Billy Ray, a venerable bluegrass musician. The meeting quickly turns sour as Billy Ray (Harry Dean Stanton in prime Roman Grant mode) tells Rose that he didn’t like her version of one of his songs on her latest album and asks her not to cover any more. Rose then deduces that the only reason Rudge set up the meeting was in the hopes of getting Billy Ray to sign with him.

This incident sets off an argument between Rudge (who’s looking like a generally terrible manager at this point) and Rose, which culminates in her smacking a random dude in the face with a bottle and then commandeering Billy Ray’s limo. The driver, who introduces himself as Houston, is a handsome fellow played by the dad from Valley Girl (Frederic Forrest). The two strike up a friendship, and when Houston defends Rose’s honor in a hick diner, she clearly starts to fall for him.

The two continue their adventure in a gay club called 777, above which Rose used to have an apartment. When the staff realize she’s there, a drag queen comes out impersonating Rose. Eventually he pulls her on stage to sing along and they’re joined by Diana Ross and Barbara Striesand. Houston and Rose then go back to her place and things take their natural course.

Unfortunately the bliss the two find is short lived, as their late night antics have caused Rose to miss a recording session. Rudge once again chews her out, which leads her to take it out on Houston, whom she calls “a piece of meat in a chauffeur’s cap.” His feelings are hurt and he runs off to a men’s hotel and spa. This results in a madcap chase and eventually to reconciliation when he reveals that he’s a sergeant in the Army who has gone AWOL. She invites him to join her on tour.

The tour moves on to Saint Louis and Memphis, with some “life on the road” scenes peppered between, including one where Rose leads a singalong on the plane (Almost Famous, you should be ashamed). Rose is still clearly weary of the pace of her life, but Houston seems to make it better, at least until Sarah, one of Rose’s former lovers, comes back into the picture. Seeing them canoodle pushes Houston over the edge. He gets mad, hits Rose, and takes off.

The tour’s next stop is Rose’s Florida hometown. We learn that he has been anticipating this show with equal parts trepidation and excitement. She’s eager to show the people from her past how far she has come, and maybe how much she’s risen above them. This is illustrated by a scene where she goes to a market where she shopped as a kid. The manager warmly recognizes her as Mary Rose Foster, but this isn’t enough for her. She wants him to recognize her as The Rose, and when he doesn’t she pulls out one of her records, signs it, and storms out angrily.

Next Rose goes to meet with Rudge before the show, and restates her desire to take a year off. Sick of it, he issues an ultimatum. Either she carries on with the tour as planned, or he’ll cancel the evening’s show (and thus her chance at redemption) and fire her as his client. She is stunned.

At this low point, Houston returns, and Rose sees a chance to finally get her wish: To get away from the crush of fame and relax. But her nostalgia intervenes, and on their way out of town, Rose wants to stop at the bar where she got her start as a performer. She takes the stage, but Houston gets into it with one of Rose’s former classmates with whom she was once, ahem, intimate. After the scuffle he takes off again, this time for good.

Rudge, having overplayed his hand, decides he wants to do the show after all, and tries to get Rose back, but not before she gets ahold of some pills and heroin and calls her parents, with whom she hasn’t spoken in a long time. She washes the pills down with some whiskey, shoots up, and then gets flown into the concert for a triumphant homecoming performance. The crowd is adoring, but the cocktail in Rose’s system is too much. While performing Stay With Me, she collapses on stage and dies. The Rose plays, the end.

What Really Happens:

The Rose, then, is basically the story of a talented-but-insecure woman who gets chewed up by her own fame (isn’t it fitting, then, that when I recorded this on my DVR that the Palladia channel showed the video for Britney Spears’ My Prerogative right before the film?). It’s basically a fictionalized version of Janis Joplin’s life, making it a strange hybrid of categories. It's part biopic, part fake band, and part starring vehicle.

That's not the only way the film is unconventional. As I've said before, most pop music films follow the A Star Is Born story arc: beginning struggle, fame, too-big-for-britches, triumphant comeback. The Rose offers basically only the middle part of the act. Rose is at the height of her fame when the movie begins, and she stays there. Her internal struggle is the story, and her career is purely ancillary. I think this is important, because so many pop musicians have managed to maintain a high level of quality work and even a good reputation while at the same time struggling with many demons.

Where does the film coincide with true events in Joplin’s life, you may ask? Many of the details are the same: the addictions (especially the bit about kicking heroin but substituting it with alcohol), the volatile relationships (including at least one with a woman), the armpit hair, the resentment of her small hometown (though Joplin was from Texas, not Florida), and the style of music. Many of the small details are different, of course, and though Joplin did die of an overdose in her prime, it didn't happen on stage.

Fittingly and realistically, the movie offers no clear path to Rose’s demise. She’s obviously self-destructive, but there’s more than that. Rudge’s consistently crappy decisions (not heeding her wish for a break, the ill-advised meeting with Billy Ray, the ultimatum at the end), Houston’s macho inability to accept her faults, and a consistent disregard for Rose’s feelings by everyone in her life, are also clearly to blame.

Finally, the film's performance sequences are gritty and full of energy, with a strong live feeling. Midler may not have a history of performing these types of songs, but she knocks it out of the park, bringing a manic presence, and rough, powerful vocals. The songs themselves are very much in the rock/blues/soul vein and are workmanlike. None stand out as especially amazing, but none are terrible either.

Comments and Questions

How did Midler get chosen for this role? Though she was already famous at the time as a singer thanks to her Barry Manilow-produced album The Divine Miss M, The Rose marked Midler's film debut. There was no evidence that she could carry an entire film herself (even though she does so admirably; the second-to-last scene, in the phone booth, is heartbreaking). And as I said before, this wasn't even her style of music. Anyway, whoever made the choice was a smart cookie, and Midler was rewarded with a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination for best actress. In fact, the film got lots of accolades from the various self-congratulatory Hollywood award parade that year. It didn't win a lot, but it got a lot of nominations.

Director Mark Rydell has a curious resume. An actor-turned-director (he appeared in As the World Turns and in a smattering of films), he directed some TV shows (I Spy, Ben Casey, Gunsmoke) before going on to movies. Following The Rose, he directed On Golden Pond, The River, and then reunited with Midler on For the Boys. He's done very little of note since.

Maybe it's just me, and maybe it's slightly disrespectful, but the final song and death scene reminded me of Walk Hard, where Dewey Cox introduces the song Beautiful Ride by saying, "Now I'm going to sing a song will sum up my entire life"). After the song, the film tells us that "Dewey died three minutes after this performance." By the way, you should see Walk Hard if you haven't already. And if you have, you should see it again.

In Conclusion

The Rose is a valuable entry in the Baby, I'm a Star canon. Though not always easy to watch, it's a sad, subtle, unconventional, and unflinching film. And if nothing else, Midler's unexpected, electric performance is worth the price of admission.