UK TV review: Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
Ivan Radford | On 12, Jan 2017
In 2015, Debbie Reynolds was honoured for her lifetime achievement at the Screen Awards Guild awards. Presenting the prize was her daughter, Carrie Fisher. “I got to sing a wonderful song called I Ain’t Down Yet,” Reynolds recalled about The Unsinkable Molly Brown to an audience of celebs who were visibly smitten. Then she added: “Well, I ain’t.”
They were a natural double-act, both stubborn, smart and winningly sincere. And so it was almost oddly fitting, in a way, that they should ultimately pass away within a day of each other at the end of 2016, both shockingly before their time. It’s equally fitting that HBO’s tender, insightful documentary, Bright Lights, about the mother-daughter pair should be brought forward from its planned broadcast to air now. After all, these were women who had spent their lives on red carpets and in front of cameras; they were used to being on display.
That’s obvious in nearly every interaction they have: they’re forever bursting into song at one another, duetting show tunes in the living room as comfortably as they do on stage. Carrie, we discover, had an astonishingly good singing voice, which she inherited from her father, veteran crooner Eddie. While many will be familiar of the stories about how he was “stolen” from Carrie’s mother by Debbie’s friend, Elizabeth Taylor (yes, that Elizabeth Taylor), it’s a rare treat to see footage of a young Carrie singing Bridge Over Troubled Water with incredible talent and power. Reynolds, meanwhile, is a consummate Hollywood babe throughout her later years, decked out in shiny gold dresses, her wig just so; even in her more fragile moments, she is always acutely aware of how she appears to others.
Spending time with them is, quite simply, a joy, from the compound they shared in their final years (containing two strikingly different homes) to their ever-present dogs. If Carrie’s writing was brazenly, inspiringly honest, directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens capture that same intimacy on-screen. Even a security alarm going off in the middle of an interview with Reynolds is only an excuse for the pair to banter further. There’s an unavoidable poignancy in the air, but there’s laughter too. Oodles of it.
The couple’s love and affection is evident throughout, made even more affecting by the knowledge that it’s built on years of conflict; Carrie, of course, wrote dysfunctional showbiz drama Postcards from the Edge, a semi-autobiographical story of addiction, anger and arguments, which was turned into Mike Nichols’ film of the same name. We are shown brief clips from that, along with snippets of Reynolds’ own musical heyday, both of which make for effective contrasts to the modern-day spectacle of Reynolds soldiering on through Vegas club nights and Fisher grudgingly doing exercise to film The Force Awakens. (“If you die when you’re fat, are you a fat ghost?” she wonders.) We even get to experience the chaos of autograph signing at a convention from Carrie’s perspective, which she goes through with exactly the amount of sincerity and sarcasm you’d expect.
The structure is loose, hardly chronological and free of overbearing narration – a style that makes this closer to listening to them have a relaxed chat about their lives than a formal documentary, and all the better for it. The nearest we get to classical vox pops are the occasional contributions of Carrie’s brother, Todd, who helps to bring Carrie’s relationship with her dad into focus. Carrie, meanwhile, doesn’t shy away from her bipolar disorder, christening her two moods “Rollicking Roy” and “Sediment Pam”; frankly, the film doesn’t need a narrator, when she’s so qualified to do it.
The result is warm tribute to a unique pair of stars whose lights shone brightly, and were extinguished too soon. By the time we see them rock up at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Carrie is concerned about whether Reynolds can stand long enough to reach the stage – and it’s in these moments, when their guard is down, that the intensity of their bond really dazzles. Showbiz anecdotes and a study of old movie magic rubbing up against real life (Reynolds’ home is stuffed with collectibles) are present and correct, but this documentary is, most of all, a bittersweet portrayal of a bittersweet relationship between a mother and a daughter, who, no matter what, spent their lives standing next to each other and declaring they weren’t down yet. 90 minutes of those bright lights shining a little longer? You’d gladly take another 90 years.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds is available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 Sky Entertainment Pass monthly subscription – with a 7-day free trial.