Monday, August 8, 2016

Bette Midler Joins THE VOICE

Bette Midler joins Miley Cyrus, Joan Jett and Sammy Hagar as a mentor on NBC's 11th season of THE VOICE.  That new season starts September 19th.  When the news broke, a couple of my young friends responded, "Really?"  I declared an affirmative "Yes" as a response.  I have a feeling that my younger friends -- early 40s and under -- know the Bette Midler of movies like BEACHES and her 1980s recordings of "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "From A Distance."
Those two records, and I write this respectfully, would get airplay on Easy Listening stations.  Bette Midler's early work gives her the top credentials to be a mentor on THE VOICE.  First of all, I have seen her in concert several times through the decades.  The first time was in Milwaukee.  I was an usher when she played Milwaukee's classy 2500-seat theater in what is now called the Marcus Center.  That's where many A-list entertainers and Broadway tours played. Her one-night engagement sold out quickly.  She came, we saw, she slayed us.  Midler was brassy and new and fun, a busty redheaded dynamo who had a hit record with her sensuous, earthy cover of "Do You Want To Dance?"  She scored in charismatic appearances on The TONIGHT Show with Johnny Carson that spotlighted her musical and comedy skills.

This redhead was one energetic entertainer sure to rise to stardom.  She had the 70s rock vibe but the soul of an old show biz trouper.  She sang with Bing Crosby and with Bob Dylan.  In concert, she could belt out a rock tune like nobody's business, have you doubled over with laughter at her bawdy X-rated jokes and then break your heart with a rendition of John Prine's "Hello In There."  She was naughty, lovable and, above all, talented giving you an evening of "tit and wit."  Her devoted gay audience grew to include what we called "mainstream" fans.

I've seen contemporary acts in concert, at The Grammys and other music shows.  Few can match or top those early Bette Midler shows.  She combined spectacle with smarts.  You could not be stupid at her shows and get her hysterically funny references that ranged from pop culture and current show biz gossip to classic films such as CITIZEN KANE and the classic poetry of England's John Milton.  A perfect example of this is the 2-record live recording of her Cleveland concert, BETTE MIDLER:  LIVE AT LAST.
I'm pretty sure the year was 1976.  If you've never heard this concert, treat yourself.  This is vintage Midler.  More network TV appearances followed, including a 1977 music variety special with Dustin Hoffman.  Then came Bette Midler's big screen film acting debut in 1979's rock music drama, THE ROSE.  Even though millions of us had her records and saw her in concert, we were not prepared for how devastating she was as that blazing hot rock star who was soon to burn out.  She totally deserved that Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  Rose is an ambitious rock star in the Vietnam War era who gives all her heart and soul in performance onstage.  The rock 'n' roll lifestyle has taken its toll on her.  She's had a bout with drugs.  She's on the road constantly and there's no time for romance or solitude.  She's physically and spiritually frayed.  As a performer, she's a larger than life show business commodity that's being used and abused so others can profit.
Bette Midler would go on to get a second Best Actress Oscar nomination, for 1991's FOR THE BOYS, but never again (so far) would Bette Milder be as raw, revealing and dramatically riveting as she was in THE ROSE.  You did think of the late 1960s rock singer Janis Joplin as you watched Milder in the role.  Bette, however, said that she based her character in part on the late Jim Morrison on The Doors.

If you've never seen this film, you need to rent it.  When you experience Midler singing the rock tunes, you'll immediately know that she has the right to mentor on THE VOICE.  This is especially true of her final number in THE ROSE.  She put an unforgettable stamp on "Stay With Me."
It's not just a powerful vocal rendition, it's brilliant acting.  She treats the song as a monologue.  She's specific in the moment of the scene and specific in her character's physicality.  She's onstage, she's extremely heartbroken and she's under the influence of a critical dose of drugs.  All the rage and pain and loneliness of her life come out in that song.  It's as if she's casting out her own demons.  Midler's Rose is tragic, funny, infuriating, pathetic, huggable and -- this above all -- very human.  You connect to this character.  It's a truthful performance. Alan Bates and Frederic Forrest co-starred.

In future film roles, when her stardom had been secured, Midler wouldn't often be as raw and vulnerable.  She'd occasionally be like a comedy writer Bruce Vilanch version of a character played by Bette Midler the star.  There would be touches of Bette "business" winking at you.  Think of BEACHES or her STELLA DALLAS remake, 1990's STELLA .  In 1979, a new talent named Bette Midler totally and bravely gave herself over to the character called The Rose.  And the results were fascinating to see.

The Best Actress Oscar went to Sally Field, the favorite, for NORMA RAE.  By then a Hollywood veteran, Field had been the star of two 1960s youth market ABC sitcoms and then was pretty much regarded as fluff by snobbish Hollywood.  She reinvented herself to tremendous critical acclaim in the dramatic 1976 NBC mini-series SYBIL as a schizophrenic young woman abused in childhood and now battling a multiple personalities disorder.  Later, the NORMA RAE film role brought her just about every major entertainment prize short of the Soul Train Music Award.  She'd won Hollywood's respect along with her first Oscar.

If Sally Field hadn't won, the Oscar should've gone to Bette Midler for THE ROSE.  Yes, today's young pop/rock vocalists hoping to be discovered can learn a thing or two about singing -- and about acting -- from The Divine Miss M.

Look for Bette Midler on NBC's THE VOICE come September.  In spring of 2017, she'll be back on Broadway in a revival of the musical comedy classic, HELLO, DOLLY!

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