Overview: The story of a family’s complicated love, BRIGHT LIGHTS: STARRING CARRIE FISHER AND DEBBIE REYNOLDS is an intimate portrait of Hollywood royalty in all its eccentricity. Fisher and her mother, Reynolds, live in the same Beverly Hills compound. The 83-year-old grand dame has a Las Vegas act, but performing is taking its toll. Carrie’s response is both hilarious and heart-rending. Featuring vintage family films that bring iconic old-world Hollywood to life, as well as extensive vérité footage, the film is directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens and screened at the Cannes, Telluride, and New York Film Festivals in 2015.
Expectations: This film, which made it around a number of film festivals was not scheduled to air on HBO until April if this year. Of course, the deaths of this mother/daughter duo made us scream that enough was enough with the loss of celebrity icons already. We know that going into this documentary that Carrie and Debbie (if I may) were close companions and have heard talk that Debbie died the day after Carrie of a broken heart. Did she? What special bond did they really have? Will this documentary shed light on the answer?
I review this piece for three reasons. First, because I am of the right age to remember the history and career of both of these gals. I’m paying my respects by taking my time to watch something about them and to think upon it afterward. Another reason is because I am interested to learn why these entertainers were considered ‘bright lights’ by the filmmakers. What illuminance did they capture for this film? I sure hope to see some of it and I think anyone compelled to watch this documentary wants to do the same thing. Lastly, I am doing this as part of my job; it is what I do, but the witty company I am about to keep over the next hour and a half makes it all worthwhile. I am eager to hear of the friendship between these two cinematic icons that we will surely miss.
Gut Reaction: Hey, I’m sad. It is to be expected because so is everyone else over the loss of these two ladies. I’m also sad because I don’t think BRIGHT LIGHTS was hands down the best tribute these ladies should have gotten. Now I realize this film was made a while ago and wanted to illustrate the dynamics of what makes these two who they are (were.) The documentary changed the tone for us once they were deceased.
My beef is that while there are quite a few wonderful moments in the film they are scrambled into just a jumble of footage. I liked the comment I saw in some review that stated it was ‘scattershot’ for indeed it was. Even though the above overview included the words ‘extensive vérité footage’ in its description of the piece and the attached trailer illustrated that point I was still somewhat put off by it. The structure of the film and the editing of it kind of left me cold. But, I had to remind myself that this was never meant as an after death tribute, but as a day-in-the-life look at these bright lights. Nevertheless, I struggled with it.
However, I never struggled with the notion that these were two, dynamic, complicated and interesting people. Carrie Fisher always had such a way with words; she could turn a phrase and drive her point home. She was rough, honest, blunt and sure. Debbie was simple, sweet and just a constant charismatic charmer. Even in her feebleness, she could turn on the star power instantly. All that showed in BRIGHT LIGHTS. And it appears that their lives were always abuzz and were almost always spent with each other. They were singing, laughing and reminiscing with ease. Maybe, the disjointed tone of the film was appropriate after all as it reflected their off-kilter chaotic lives as it played out for the camera.
We are basically told by Carrie Fisher that these two needed each other. Carrie would fret over Debbie whisking off to her Vegas act or an awards show in ill health and Debbie would monitor and deal with her daughter’s drastic mood swings. They were family, best friends and the strongest supporters of each other over time and how nice was it to get to share some of that here. We saw Debbie’s ills and Carrie’s love of Coca-Cola; Debbie’s nostalgic memories and Carrie’s manic moods; also there were home movies, fan conventions, property auctions, Hollywood and the beloved Compound. All these reveals, though, were emotionally as jumbled as the film’s edit. We were surprised, amused and saddened all at once.
Seek it out this documentary on HBO’s streaming sites for yourself and take out of it what you need to in order to recognize, understand and respect these iconic, and wonderful souls. They were not just bright lights in entertainment but for us all.
Bonus: Did filmmakers Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom capture our Bright Lights? I think so and so do they. Here are a few thoughts from them along with HBO’s Sheila Nevins. (Link to the entire dialog on THR).
SHEILA NEVINS: It started with [Fisher’s play] Wishful Drinking. I had seen the show and thought it would be perfect for HBO. I didn’t know Carrie at that point, but I thought it was the most honest and incredible portrait of one’s life that I’d ever seen. So we gathered around it and put it on HBO. I maintained a relationship with her after that because I just thought she was a remarkable person and a great survivor. Then Fisher Stevens mentioned he was thinking of doing a film with Carrie and Debbie. I thought, “What a brilliant idea,” and that was the genesis of Bright Lights.
ALEXIS BLOOM: We had a friend in common, a producer named Charlie Wessler, who was staying with Carrie when Debbie was going off to Connecticut to perform. Carrie was saying, “I can’t believe my mother is still performing. Someone should be filming this.” So Charlie introduced us to Carrie, we met and sat around talking and liked each other. It all organically came to pass and we mutually decided there is a film here, let’s go for it, and we started filming.
NEVINS: In my heart of hearts, I think Carrie wanted to memorialize Debbie. Debbie was getting older. It was harder and harder for Debbie to be Debbie and yet she insisted on being Debbie. Carrie wanted Debbie to rest on her laurels, and Debbie wanted to continue to be the Debbie Reynolds of yore.
STEVENS: When we started with Debbie, she didn’t really understand the concept of documentary or cinema verite. She asked for lines. “What should I say?” Ultimately, she was doing it for her daughter, Carrie, and Carrie was doing it for her mother, Debbie, but for completely different ways.
BLOOM: It was never conceived of as a film that was solely about Debbie and her final years of performing. It was always about how Carrie felt about that. We always saw them as a duet. Carrie on her mother is amazing. And her mother on Carrie is sort of amazing, too. We always knew it was a relationship film, but we didn’t realize the depths of it for a couple of months. It was always about the two of them. We also didn’t know what access we would get. But we had a sense about the magic of the two of them. We had no chronology, we had no idea what was going to happen. We were just going on a feeling. It was amazing to be in their presence.
In Conclusion: Yes, it was. In the end, BRIGHT LIGHTS was not a glitzy, glamorous bio of their lives, but a more poignant and meaningful reflection on how much these two needed each other, loved each other and shone bright for each other. I can overlook the cinematic mess this film seemed to be in order to get a glimpse of the real Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Thank you.
Next: BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN debuts Monday, January 23 at 10:00pm after THE YOUNG POPE 04. It should be good. Stay tuned for a detailed look at the phenom and the review.