The story of a rock star’s rise to fame and eventual self-destruction through whiskey and dirty hypodermic needles is nothing new, but Bette Midler (in her film debut) attacks the role of an ugly duckling from a backwoods hick town in Florida who glitters brightly in the acid-drenched galaxy of amplified noise and charges it with personal magnetism that sets the screen on fire.
Beyond exhaustion, desperately in need of some kind of escape from the vultures who make the money and refuse her even a vacation, shoving her – tired and near starvation – into helicopters without any time to change from her sweat-soaked funky glitter to meet more mobs of cretinous fans elsewhere, Bette embraces and embodies every dreary, empty dream.
It is painful to watch her frail body weave and twitch when they jam syringes of vitamin B- 12 into her skinny behind.
It’s heartbreaking to hear her frayed, worn-out voice grasping for notes that will not come as she hoarsely tries to scream her way through another mind frying sold-out concert.
Her life is falling apart as she wanders through the Memphis traffic muttering, “I shoulda gone to college.” Even if you’ve seen it all before, Bette makes you feel it for the first time. You’ve just got to care.
Based loosely on the Janis Joplin tragedy, The Rose uses bits of Janis’s life (they call her “Rose” instead of “Pearl,” she’s from Florida instead of Texas), mixes in some Grace Slick and utilises a great deal of Bette Midler onstage and off.
When all the highs and lows, uppers and downers, trash and flash, straight sex and gay sex come out of the last cycle in the dryer, what’s left is a harrowing portrait of life in the rock world that also mirrors the fantasy we all have of going back to whatever one-horse town it is we came from and rubbing their noses in it.
For Rose it’s a rock concert in Florida. She never quite makes it, but The Rose shows her fighting all the way to get there.
She drives herself beyond fatigue, refuelling with drugs and booze to stay awake, getting battered around by greedy promoters and managers, trying to find a moment of peace with a hillbilly chauffeur who can’t keep up with the frenetic pace of her obsession to be somebody.
Eventually collapsing in the middle of a stadium from an overdose of heroin, Bette pulls out the stops, strips herself naked for all the world to see in a performance full of blood and guts and chutzpah.
Director Mark Rydell extracts from Frederic Forrest an immensely appealing performance as an AWOL soldier who picks her up as a chauffeur and teaches her the meaning of love when the noise dies down around her.
Alan Bates is wasted in the unsympathetic role of her English manager, the Svengali who knocks her about and pulls her strings.
But it’s Bette who gives the film its centrifugal force.
Harry Dean Stanton
John Dennis Johnston