In short, definitely see The Rose for Midler’s intense, deeply felt, entirely convincing performance. The Criterion Collection has issued the film in fully-restored condition on Blu-ray, boasting flawless picture and audio. But the two hour and 15 minute running time is overly indulgent. Director Mark Rydell (an Oscar nominee himself, but for On Golden Pond in 1981) takes his sweet time in telling what is (by now anyway) an overly familiar story. Maybe the film hit harder in ’79, but we’ve seen this tale of slowly-wrought, self-induced ruin in many films. Quite a few of them have been about real-life individuals. Maybe if the filmmakers had received the blessing of the Joplin family, they could’ve crafted something more distinctive and emotionally impacting. But as a work of complete fiction, there’s a sense of “who cares?” that permeates the entire film.
Again, it’s a great testament to Midler’s performance that she’s able to achieve so much with so little. The concert sequences give her plenty to work with, but off stage we don’t ever learn enough about Rose. It’s not that Rydell and company should’ve spoonfed the audience, it’s that we never see Rose do anything interesting. She bickers with her manager (played by Alan Bates). She shows up late to recording sessions, long after everyone has vacated the studio. She gets into awkward situations with bar owners and other musicians (including country singer Billy Ray; an incisive cameo by Harry Dean Stanton). Personally, I found it easier to side with the people who had little to zero patience for the spoiled, perpetually-wasted Rose. On top of Rose being a generally unlikable person, her artistic abilities are questionable as well. She’s an effective blues shouter and knows how to work a crowd, but we don’t see the spark of inspiration that might denote a true artist lurking below the shenanigans.
Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation of The Rose is cause for celebration by fans of the film. The director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond, personally supervised the new 4K transfer (according to the notes in the booklet). The live concert sequences have the carefully-crafted realism (bordering on inelegance) of a guerrilla documentary. But there’s a real depth to these segments that hasn’t been remotely present in previous home video formats. The entire transfer boasts incredible clarity, but the hazy graininess inherent in Zsigmond’s work is still present. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is also a major upgrade from the previous DVD, especially in terms of overall presence during the musical numbers.
A number of new, Criterion-exclusive supplements should also make fans happy. There’s an interview (18 minutes) with Bette Midler that was taped earlier this year. Director Mike Rydell sat with Criterion for an interview of the same length in late 2014. A longer piece (30 minutes) was also taped in 2014 with Zsigmond. While topics overlap, it’s interesting to hear their varying perspectives. From out of the vaults comes a Today show segment (five minutes) from 1978 shot during the film’s production. There’s also a vintage interview (from 1979; 15 minutes) between critic Gene Shalit and Bette Midler. An audio commentary by director Rydell was recorded in 2003 (and apparently licensed from a previous DVD edition by another distributor).
Critic Paula Mejia contributes a new essay for the Blu-ray booklet. The Criterion Collection’s new restoration of The Rose is also available (separately) on standard DVD.