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Criterion's new Blu-ray, licensed from 20th Century-Fox, offers a superb video transfer of a sometimes very grainy original camera negative. Decent supplements accompany the disc.
Vaguely set at the end of the 1960s, the story finds rock sensation Mary Rose Foster, "The Rose" (Midler), an alcoholic and recovering drug addict, overworked by her humorless manager-promoter, Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates). She desperately wants time off, but he's got millions in concert gigs and recording sessions lined up. He puts the thumbscrews on, pressuring her to stick to her commitments.
He takes her to meet a country music star, Billy Ray (Harry Dean Stanton), whom she admires and whose songs she covers, but he humiliates and admonishes her for her outrageous, self-serving lifestyle. Horrified, she flees the scene by hijacking Billy Ray's limo, driven by Houston Dyer (Frederic Forrest), an AWOL sergeant in the Army.
She thinks she's found True Love with Houston, but he tires of her neediness, her addictions, especially the need to perform before adoring crowds, and her casual sexual relationship with a former female lover (Sandra McCabe). Everything comes to a head when Rose returns to her hometown for what's supposed to be a triumphant homecoming.
The Rose has many good points. The concert scenes, with their mix of standards and original songs, play very authentic. Most rock biographies, fictionalized and otherwise, rarely have anything close to this level of verisimilitude. Midler sings great, one accepts the audience would adore her, and the new songs play like they might have been big hits in this time setting. That Midler was at that point primarily known for her gay bath houses and nightclub years in New York, and a few albums and TV appearances, made her a relative unknown to most of the mainstream movie audience, so she really comes off as an explosively talented newcomer yet still totally convincing. Partly this is because the movie seems to consciously blur biographical aspects of Janis Joplin's life with that of Midler herself. (For instance, The Rose has her reunite with friends at a drag bar where Rose apparently performed.) In any case, Midler commits fully to the part and, though the movie overall isn't so hot, her Academy Award nomination as Best Actress was deserved.
Frederic Forrest is equally fine as Houston, whose character is even more sketchy than Rose's, but Forrest does a good job trying to fill all those empty holes with often wordless reaction shots that speak volumes. Harry Dean Stanton, who gets to sing briefly, likewise makes a strong impression in his small part.
Bates's character, however, is a show business cliché he can't overcome. He's exhibits zero empathy toward Rose, and his character seems more determined to ensure her destruction rather than to safeguard their shared interests. The climax to the picture, when he all but pushes her onstage knowing full well that she's pumped full of booze and drugs and can barely stand, makes no dramatic sense at all. (Nor does her inexplicable final burst of energy, revitalized like a pulverized Popeye after a rejuvenating can of spinach.) Watching the Blu-ray, I suspect Bates's character must have been the main inspiration for Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), the long-suffering manager of Spinal Tap.
The movie is adult and intelligent, with much explicit language, graphic drug use, etc. (How could this have aired at all on network television?), if unaware that its screenplay from the start never allows the audience to feel much sympathy for Rose and her self-destructive behavior. Or, for that matter, ever even really understand the circumstances driving her to this sad, sorry point in her life. By the end of the film I realized that, much more than The Rose's dramatic scenes I favored the energetic concert footage, superbly photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, aided by Conrad Hall, Laszlo Kovaks, Haskell Wexler and others, many of whom also worked on The Last Waltz.
Video & Audio
Scanned in 4K from the original camera negative under Zsigmond's supervision, the 1.85:1 widescreen The Rose looks great, with only a few inherently grainy sections distracting slightly from the presentation. The excellent color is particularly notable; the scan really brings out some startlingly vibrant hues. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix utilizes materials from the original 6-track magnetic mix originally done for 70mm blow-up engagements. The disc is Region A locked and includes optional English subtitles.
Supplements include an audio commentary featuring director Mark Rydell; new video interviews with Rydell, Midler, and Zsigmond; archival behind the scenes footage and interviews with Rydell and Midler, and a fold-out booklet essay by Paula Mejia.
Worth seeing for the concert scenes and performances, much less so for its disappointing screenplay, The Rose is mildly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.