During the parting moments of 2016, a year already marked by the deaths of so many luminaries and childhood favourites, actress Carrie Fisher suffered a cardiac arrest during a transatlantic flight, causing her death four days later on the 27th of December. Her mother, actress and performer Debbie Reynolds, passed the very next day, reportedly leaving with a final wish to join her daughter.
Seven months earlier, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds had premiered at Cannes. This weekend the film is screening on HBO in the USA and Showcase here in Australia; the screening date moved ahead some two months in lieu of their passing.
The documentary pursues Debbie to her finale night as a performer and her acceptance of the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Awards, while following Carrie to conventions where she performs ‘celebrity lap dances’ and signs memorabilia; posing for photos with devout fans of her second self, Princess Leia.
It is in itself a love story, detailing the lifetime of relationship highs and lows between a mother who had become America’s sweetheart and a daughter who had experimented with drugs too soon. If Carrie’s Postcards From the Edge was written to reveal how tense their relationship once was, then Bright Lights serves as an opposing reminder to the harmony of their later life.
We first meet Carrie as she crosses the hill that separates her house from her mothers’, moments after being told they would argue too much if they live together, instead deciding to live next-door. They each have with them a small dog, their colours matching their animals as they banter and break into duets at random times. There appears to be no summit to their relationship, watching through their best times and their worst, reaching a zenith as Carrie performs her mothers song, “I’ll Never Say No To You” during Debbie’s final performance.
Bright Lights in ways reflects the final work of the late David Bowie. It is a pathos and empathetic recognition of the approaching end. We see Carrie turn to an antique scrawled with the message ‘prepare to meet thy god’ to which she responds, ‘uh oh when?’ She, for a moment, ponders whether dying fat makes you a fat ghost. Debbie’s own reflections are more sincere, as she cherishes her opportunity to receive a lifetime achievement award and to celebrate it with her family.
Their relationship becomes so powerful it is magnetic, and at times difficult to comprehend, as audiences are reminded of their fated destiny, especially during the films more sentimental moments. As a viewer unfamiliar with just how venerable and far reaching the impact of the Fisher-Reynolds family was, it still felt like a knife to be prodded knowing how soon after those moments they would pass. These feelings of sympathy are replaced however by the film’s final moments, as Debbie and Carrie sing Judy Garland’s A Star is Born,
“That great beginning
Has seen the final inning.
Don’t know what happened,
It’s all a crazy game …”
Fading to black as Debbie tells Carrie that she loves her. There is then, no reason for sympathy; the interment passes to the wake and their passing is itself a final symbol of how close they really were.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds is a documentary shot from afar. While it’s not exactly verite, the filmmakers only ever appear in the documentary as audience members. They’re always spectators to the demanding force of an unsinkable Debbie Reynolds, who like her daughter never once breaks her vibrant personality, only taking days for recovery when feeling unwell.
The film often cuts between scenes of films either Debbie or Carrie had acted in, always in perfect cue with their developing stories. After learning of Debbie’s unwillingness to retire, we see old footage of a stage performance where she ushers a 15-year old Carrie onto the stage, telling Carrie to hurry as she must retire soon. Similarly as we learn of Debbie’s fighting spirit, we see her performing as the unsinkable Molly Brown, as if she had become the very character she had played.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds is introspective, it is funny, it is sad, but it is never unenjoyable. Ultimately, it is an elegant tribute to a colourful relationship that had impacted so many lives in its course. As for Carrie’s final obituary of course, she drowned in moonlight, strangled by (her) own bra.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Bright Lights airs today (January 8th) on Foxtel’s Showcase at 12noon and 9.30pm.