JANIS JOPLIN would have detested The Rose. Starring Bette Midler, this thinly-disguised biography chronicles the epic self-destruction of Rose, a white woman from the south, singin' the blues. Director Mark Rydell clearly knows how to hack at the heartstrings; the very first shot of the film identifies Rose, i.e. Janis "pearl" Joplin, with the other self-destructive heroes of our culture, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. As the biography of a real woman, The Rose reveals nothing. It takes a marvelously idiosyncratic human being and reduces her to a cliche.
On that level however, the film works. Forget the idea that this film has any connection with Janis Joplin, the woman, and enjoy its insights into the cosmos of a "star." The Rose works splendidly when it treats Rose as a singing phenomenon transcending human limits and fails abysmally when it portrays her as a lonely woman with all of Joplin's reputed problems. As a star on stage, Midler becomes a voice and a presence. In the striking concert scenes, she projects an astounding vitality and animal-like ferocity, savaging both herself and the audience. Her voice lacks the razor-edged poignancy or raw power of Joplin's but has a vibrancy all its own. Fortunately, Midler avoids impersonating or lip-synching any of Joplin's trademarks: "Try (Just a little bit harder)," "Piece of My Heart," "Me and Bobby McGee." Instead, Midler performs a number of rock and blues standbys. She is not an outstanding blues singer; any comparison with such greats as Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday would be absurd. But Midler holds her own musically and captures, through sweat and emotion, the charisma of a star.
Like all stars, she is a packaged commodity; if she stops selling, she gets tossed into the leftover rack. Rydell explores her relationships with Rudge, her grubby English manager (Alan Bates), with her sexist, drugged-up back-up band, and finally, with her voracious audiences. As long as Rose remains the archetypal star, both blessed and cursed with a great voice and an even greater need for love, the film succeeds.
All too soon, however, fetid personal details of Joplin's own life are brought in and drooled over. The most offensive example exploits her alleged bisexuality. From literally out of nowhere there appears in Rose's dressing room one evening a gorgeous Valkyrie in Junior League pearls and a tastefully pleated white skirt. The two women fawn and coo over one another in an absolute travesty of lesbian affection. Rydell handles the entire scene and topic with the leering prurience of a porn director. He offers up to us his Bryant-esque theory of homosexual women: when that rare "good man" ain't around, another broad will do, but when the real McCoy rears its head, both literally and figuratively, the other woman is naturally and immediately banished. After all, it's only normal.
WHEN THE FILM refrains from digging up dead dirt on a dead woman and concentrates on creating the live persona of Rose, things improve. The entire sequence with Frederic Forrest as an AWOL Army sergeant is enchanting; Midler's gifts as both a comic and serious actress shine as she creates an original character rather than rehashing old rumors about Joplin.
In one of the film's most effective episodes, Midler draws upon her own experience as an aspiring singer in New York City's gay bars and baths. The rendition of Seger's "The Fire Down Below" with a group of oversized female impersonators shows a rare tolerance and warmth, the same elements so lacking in the lesbian scene.
Interestingly, The Rose evokes little nostalgia of the '60s. The concert scenes are exciting, but the audiences appear so carnivorous that Rose's on-stage death seems sacrificial. Everything looks drugged out and messy. Not only messy in a physical sense, with all of Rose's glimmering, filthy rags and feathers, but also in a spiritual sense. The crowd scenes capture the alienated, frenetic mood of the late '60s. The Rose portrays the jarring disillusionment caused by the American Dream going bust.
The cornerstone of that dream shatters in the climax of the film. A drunken Rose telephones her parents from the high school football field where the team once gangbanged her on the 50-yard line. This time, she's having a sell-out concert "back home." As she adds lethal drugs to the tequila already churning in her empty stomach, Rose tries to talk to these aged strangers. They're not coming to her concert, and they can't help her now. They never could. Like the singer, the American Dream and the American family are dead at the end of The Rose.