THE DOCUMENTARY “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds”
WHEN | WHERE Saturday, Jan. 7, at 8 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Before their recent and unexpected deaths, Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher — mother and daughter, of course — were neighbors. Very close neighbors: They lived in a “compound” just yards from one another. This film follows them as they go about their daily rounds. Reynolds — who died Dec. 28 at age 84 — and Fisher — who died the day before at age 60 — talk about their extraordinary lives, along with the tragedies and triumphs.
MY SAY “Bright Lights” could not have had a more complicated job at a more complicated moment. Long ago conceived as a documentary but arriving as both elegy and eulogy, this could have been just another straight-ahead look at two celebrated women. While it will be abundantly clear the words “straight ahead” and “Carrie Fisher” can barely exist in the same sentence, much less the same film, that would have been a lost opportunity (not to mention a dull film). Instead, “Lights” offers understanding along with a certain measure of emotional release — ours, of course.
Producers Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens — who premiered this at Sundance last year — may not have known what they were getting into when they began this labor of love and admiration. Fisher refuses to remain stationary for any camera lens, and refuses to filter herself. She’s a kaleidoscope of movement, also of words and observations — some disjointed, some searing, almost all funny. Apropos of nothing, she quotes — or more precisely bellows — a line from T.S. Eliot: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” In another, she calls her ailing mother, joking that “I’m going to marry you during the night and by the morning take all your money.”
Possibly a dig at stepfather Harry Karl, who died in 1982, and who essentially did just that? Possibly. In any event, she finishes him off with this: “Nothing about him was interesting until we found out about the hookers.” By contrast, Reynolds is a deep and tranquil pool. The past crowds her, and (she admits) also sustains her: “I love having my ghosts and my memories. It’s like you have a friend forever.” Cameras follow her to various shows, in places like Mohegan Sun, where elderly fans gather to share in those ghosts. Clips from “The Tender Trap” and “Singin’ in the Rain” follow. The ghosts disperse, and time dissolves. Reynolds smiles, the crowd happily applauds. The object of its adoration hobbles offstage.
Themes and patterns emerge out of the kaleidoscope of images. Here’s an obvious one: Both mother and daughter together had a deeply intimate relationship with the past, and because they shared so much of that past, that extended to their own relationship. Their lives were not just inextricably bound, but you begin to suspect (or realize) that they completed one another, or sustained one another, too.
When this was filmed many months ago, that must have seemed poignant. Now, it’s heartbreaking.
BOTTOM LINE A beauty that will mostly make you laugh and, of course, cry.