Early in the HBO documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds, viewers get a glimpse of the huge double-doored gate to “the compound,” a sprawling, multi-house California ranch where author and Star Wars star Carrie Fisher and her mother, Singin’ In The Rain star Debbie Reynolds, live in adjoining houses. The gate is festooned with random kitschy signs, seemingly reclaimed from a series of junky bars. “Beware of crabs.” “No swimsuits in lobby.” “Beware of trains.” “Public telephone within.” There’s also a wooden cutout of a pair of scissors. It’s a chaotic, eclectic collection of instructions and images with no clear organizing principle or aesthetic. But the gate is also charming in its eccentricity. It suggests that there’s a quirky mind at work behind the curtain, curating fun stuff without sweating how it all fits together.
Appropriately, that’s how Bright Lights feels, too. The documentary, directed by Alexis Bloom and actor / filmmaker Fisher Stevens, doesn’t tell any sort of linear story. It bounces through time and space, shifting focus every few minutes. At times, the filmmakers seem to be producing a historical family doc, building a timeline out of home videos and old newsreel footage. Then they interrupt themselves with talking-head interviews and snippets from one of Reynolds’ live shows. And then sometimes they’re making a hangout movie, with the camera following Fisher on a tour through her house, or lingering in a corner while she jokes around with friends.
But in the wake of Fisher’s recent death at age 60, and Reynolds’ death the following day at 84, this personal, relaxed time with the two stars is pleasantly cathartic. When HBO execs decided to release the documentary immediately, instead of waiting for its scheduled March debut, it was a savvy corporate move. It also feels, less cynically, like a gift to the duo’s fans, a last chance to cuddle up with Fisher and Reynolds in an intimate setting before moving on.
Bright Lights skims across a lot of historical material that will be familiar to anyone who read Fisher’s memoirs: the short, much-publicized marriage between Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, their even-more-publicized breakup when he left her for Elizabeth Taylor, Reynolds remarrying a shoe magnate who gambled away his fortune and hers. The filmmakers layer the adult domestic drama — expressed through interviews and voiceovers — over adorable home-movie shoots of the couple's children. Baby Carrie Fisher and her younger brother Todd toddle around their childhood mansion, play in their pool, and appear on TV. The entire documentary would be worth it just for the footage of Fisher as a lanky, grinning teenager, belting out Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at one of Reynolds’ cabaret shows, or improvising a wacky dance on a California lawn.
But Bloom and Stevens are most captivated by Fisher and Reynolds’ close adult relationship, which is simultaneously acerbic and heartbreakingly sweet. On camera by herself, Fisher grumbles that her mother is an unstoppable force of nature — “tsumommy,” she calls her — and she worries that Reynolds is draining herself with her ongoing live shows instead of relaxing into retirement. But when they head out on an errand together, the two women hold hands and spontaneously break into a duet. Bundled up on a couch at Christmas, they converse by exchanging lyrics from “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in a serious, straight-faced way, the way other families might talk about sports, politics, or the unseasonably good weather. Their dynamic is unmistakably a classic mother / adult-daughter pairing, with both women alternating protectiveness and exasperated I-know-what’s-best-for-you bossiness. But it’s also close, warm, and cuter than hell.
Both women are show business professionals, perpetually aware of the camera, playing directly to it. Bright Lights reminds viewers of both women’s careers with montages of their greatest hits. It also incorporates enough winning highlights from Reynolds’ musicals to suggest that the filmmakers have an agenda: bringing younger Fisher fans up to speed on her mother, and sending them off to play catch-up with Reynolds’ filmography. For all their professionalism, though, the stars never feel groomed or artificial in the doc. Fisher in particular seems to have her guard entirely down. She swears like a sailor, cracks up at the garish “Leia sex doll” she has prominently on display in her home, and cackles through a manicure while doing a Barbra Streisand imitation and quoting T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” And then she slumps, admitting that she’s in the middle of a manic upswing, and that mental illness is tiring. “You know what would have been so cool?” she asks the camera. “To get to the end of my personality and just, like, lay in the sun… I’m sick of myself.”
That isn’t the only startling moment dealing with Fisher’s bipolar episodes. In another home video, young Fisher runs along the Great Wall of China, blasting music and pulling strangers in to dance. Later, she slumps in bed, naming her moods (“Roy” and “Pam”) and describing how she’s different depending on which of the two identities takes the wheel. But Bright Lights doesn’t center in on this topic any more than any other. It’s just one piece of a wide-ranging story that includes sequences of Fisher sneaking Cokes and grouching at her trainer as she tries to take off weight ahead of shooting Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Reynolds auctioning off parts of a multi-million-dollar collection of Hollywood memorabilia.
Occasionally the scattershot approach becomes frustrating. It’s easy to want this film on Blu-ray with infinite outtakes and full, uncut sequences. A conversation where Fisher sprawls on the bed with one of her oldest friends, actor-director-producer Griffin Dunne, is so startlingly intimate and silly that it feels like it could have been a film in itself. Dunne enters Fisher’s house calling “Hey, fuckface!” She gives him a pornographic wristwatch. As they loll around together, she snarfs down ice cream while they talk about how he deflowered her, as a friend, when they were teenagers. At the time, she didn’t want to admit to her boyfriend that she was a virgin. “I took the pressure off your hymen,” he says. “That’s what a real friend does.” Fisher, for her part, acts out how her stepfather used to sleep half-naked in the same bed as the rest of the family, then emerge in “this horrible slather of balls.” The entire sequence is like a profane sleepover party. It’s delightful and disgusting, funny and crushing, all at the same time. It’s so revealing that it doesn’t even matter whether Dunne and Fisher are both consciously performing for the camera. The moment is a hoot either way.
The portrait that emerges from Bright Lights’ throw-it-at-the-wall approach is of exactly that kind of off-color frankness, that casual, chuckling comfort with the camera. Fisher and Reynolds — and Todd Fisher, in some equally revealing conversations — approach the whole business of the documentary as if they have nothing to hide, as if the filmmakers and the camera are old friends who dropped in for the weekend. Much like Fisher’s final painful memoir, Bright Lights is a look behind-the-scenes at a reality that has virtually nothing to do with the memorable images both women put on-screen. But unlike Fisher’s book, the film is warm and comforting, occasionally sad but more often giddy and gleeful. It’s a melancholy final visit in light of the recent death of both its subjects. But it’s still a rare chance for viewers to sneak behind those weird, eccentric compound gates, and hang out as if they were part of the family.
Bloom and Stevens’ Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds premieres at 8PM ET on January 7th on HBO.