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American Cinematographer Magazine

The Rose (1979)
1.85:1 (16x9 enhanced)
Dolby Digital 4.1
Fox Home Entertainment, $14.98

Loosely based on the truncated, train-wreck life of blues/rock belter Janis Joplin, The Rose stars Bette Midler as a mercurial, hard-drinking diva whose inner demons drive her into a self-destructive spiral. The well-cast Midler (who earned an Oscar nomination for her dramatic-feature debut) tears through the film like a Tasmanian devil, capturing her character's exhilarating highs and soul-crushing lows in a series of interludes that run the gamut from Dionysian decadence to heartbreaking pathos. The result is a richly detailed character study that captures the both the energy and nihilism of the Sixties rock scene.

This unblinking, warts-and-all indictment of the showbiz lifestyle was shot by the esteemed Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, whose evocative cinematography manages to convey a full range of moods and emotions. Zsigmond renders the film's dynamic concert scenes in vibrant hues that bolster Midler's electrifying performances, but artfully tones things down during the narrative's quieter, more contemplative scenes.

In an audio commentary for this new DVD, director Mark Rydell testifies that he was "really lucky" to have Zsigmond as his director of photography because the show posed some formidable challenges - including the complex logistics of the concert scenes, which were filmed live in front of real audiences comprised of up to 6,000 extras (or "atmospheric artists," as Rydell graciously refers to them). Nine cameras were used to record the onstage action, and Zsigmond's stature allowed the production to recruit some top pros to operate them: ASC members Bobby Byrne, Conrad Hall, Jan Kiesser, Laszlo Kovacs, Michael Margulies, Owen Roizman and Haskell Wexler all took up positions, along with Steve Lydecker and David Meyers. According to Rydell, the result of this

documentary approach was "a certain kind of power and passion and vitality that would never be achievable if somebody other than the actual performer was singing and they were just lip-syncing. I always find that intolerable." The filmmakers also wisely avoided constant cuts and flashy editing, which keeps the focus on Midler's intense theatrics and formidable charisma.

Although it would have been nice to hear some comments from Zsigmond on this disc, Rydell offers some heartfelt appreciation of the cinematographer's outstanding work: "I'm always impressed by the work of Vilmos Zsigmond, who lit all these scenes with such care and reality. It was just wonderful to see; every day when we went to dailies, we were thrilled. I must tell you that we knew from day one that we had something special and that it was going to last."

The film does indeed offer its share of memorable moments: the Rose being chastised by a righteous country singer (Harry Dean Stanton) who doesn't appreciate her covers of his tunes; the diva's escalating confrontations with her domineering manager (Alan Bates), who would like to squash his star's budding romance with an earthy chauffeur (Frederic Forrest, in an Oscar-nominated effort); the sight of Midler being serenaded by a club full of drag queens; and the singer's painful return to her hometown, where she finds that nothing much has changed since her unhappy adolescence.

This transfer is decent, if a bit uneven in spots. The concert scenes are almost uniformly pristine, but other sequences suffer from excessive grain and occasional artifacts. Overall, though, the disc manages to preserve the character of Zsigmond's cinematography, which was softened by his use of heavy diffusion.

Aside from Rydell's commentary track, the disc's only extra is a theatrical trailer. But fans of both Joplin and Midler (as well as Zsigmond) will find this DVD of considerable interest.

-- Stephen Pizzello

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.