December 29, 1979
“The Rose” isn’t much of a recollection of the ’60s, as it purports to be, but it is a phenomenal film just the same.
The reason is that “The Rose” marks the screen debut of one of the most explosive singers of the decade, Bette Midler, in a role that allows her ample space for exploding. The spectacle of Midler careening through a movie which is awful on many counts isn’t exactly artful, but it is memorable, entertaining and even exciting.
The verdict on “The Rose” is this: the star is at war with the film; the star wins. From her delirious, boozy entrance to her grandiose on-stage death, Midler as a legendary ’60s rock star named The Rose is fascinating to behold. The character is modeled after Janis Joplin, who drank and drugged herself to death before screaming millions, and in the attempt to capture Joplin’s soaring, volatile spirit, Midler acts up a storm. She is vulnerable and sweet, coarse and hard, a tremendous vocalist and a sensational personality.
If only the sprawling screenplay had some shape to it, “The Rose” would be one of the greats. As it is, however, this is a film about a rock singer that offers no insight into stardom, a psychological drama with no sense of psychology, a sociological portrait that entirely lacks a social background.
Midler turns The Rose into a larger than-life figure, but her profound despair remains entirely unexamined. She battles ferociously with her ambitious manager (Alan Bates) because she wants to take time off and he won’t let her. Over-work is supposed to be what drives The Rose to the brink, yet it’s patently unbelievable that a figure of The Rose’s stature would be so easily bullied.
The Rose’s other struggles are likewise dramatically inauthentic. She undergoes a tumultuous love affair with a handsome AWOL soldier (Frederic Forrest), that is given to us as an illustration of her inability to find true love. We’re supposed to believe that The Rose is too much for any man to handle, but, as it’s presented, the argument between The Rose and her lover is a contrivance. They fight at top volume about nothing; their feelings for one another remain obscure.
Whatever emotion this relationship engenders is borne solely by the charisma of the actors. It is to Forrest’s great credit that he holds his own against Midler, so that the goings-on between them aren’t a total loss.
The story overall is such a mess that it’s best to forget it entirely to concentrate on Midler’s performance, the concert footage — beautifully executed by cinematographer Vilmos Sigmund — and on several bravura sequences that are sheer fun. One of these involves a visit The Rose and her AWOL boyfriend make to a transvestite bar where, along with impersonators of Barbara Streisand and Diana Ross, there’s one of The Rose herself.
Bette Midler and her double do a duet that would have made a great scene no matter what movie it had been part of.