After Debbie Reynolds’s death followed so soon after Carrie Fisher’s, HBO moved up the premiere of its documentary about mother and daughter — Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Debuting Saturday night, this scheduling doesn’t come across as cynical exploitation at all — if anything, it helps viewers grieve in the most positive way possible, enjoying the bond between the two, and being reminded of the varied and interesting lives they led.
Bright Lights is downright jaunty in its portrayal of the two stars, who lived next door to each other in Beverly Hills. As directed by Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom, Bright Lights portrays the pair as wacky neighbors forever barging in on each other, making wisecracks, and dispensing funny sprays of advice. At least that’s how it begins.
As the film proceeds, the cracks in their lives are revealed. Fisher’s struggles with manic-depression, drugs, and alcohol are explored. So is both women’s heartbreaking, complex relationship with Eddie Fisher, the onetime-superstar singer who married Reynolds and left her for Elizabeth Taylor, and whose fathering of Carrie was negligent at best. (There’s some painful footage of Eddie, bed-bound and skeletal, being visited by Carrie during his final days — she was still eagerly seeking his love.)
I was surprised to see Carrie signing $70 autographs and fan photos at Star Wars conventions. I guess I just assumed she didn’t need to do that for the money. She’s gracious and lighthearted with the panting fans, but once she escapes them, her relief is palpable, and her assistant tells the camera it took “forever” to convince her that she ought to do these profit-making events. Watching this, you want to yell at George Lucas for not giving Carrie a hell of a lot more Star Wars money.
Poignant too are the scenes of the elderly Debbie Reynolds preparing and performing a nightclub act. Bright Lights frames this as less of a monetary necessity than a measure of how unwilling Reynolds was to retire. Still, the act — a trip down memory lane, with Debbie playing clips of her movies, offering reminiscences to aging audience members, and warbling her only pop hit, “Tammy” — seems unworthy of her. As Carrie remarks, “Aging is hard for all of us, but she falls from a greater height.”
The documentary is never less than engaging, but as a piece of filmmaking, it’s rather shapeless. Now the deaths of Fisher and Reynolds give it an unintended shape and purpose. It captures these two extremely vital spirits in the very recent past, and makes you feel the loss of them even more sharply.
Bright Lights airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.