|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 18 May 1999|
One arguable misstep comes right at the beginning in Chapter 1, in what looks a lot like an acted-out scene of the theatre house manager lecturing his young ushers on the evening’s duties. It may be real, but it doesn’t seem real. While this duality informs much of Midler’s performance, the sequence (factual or dramatized) is a little too self-conscious in playing up her shock value. Then as now, Midler is fabulous, she’s fun, she’s raunchy, but by 1980, you’d have to find some really high-strung horses if you wanted her to frighten them.
The sound mix on Chapter 2 is excellent, allowing the music to triumph yet co-exist with the crowd’s roar of welcome as Midler’s back-up singer/dancers the Harlettes -- Jocelyn Brown, Ula Hedwig and Diva Gray on this tour -- rocket into "Big Noise From Winnetka" with an energy level that somehow soars even higher when Midler takes the stage. This is one happy diva. The cameras love those big brown eyes that sparkle with amazement, joy and speculation on what she can get up to next.
Chapter 3 has lovely clear sound on the dialogue, picking up relatively little air as Midler launches into the first of her comedy routines, describing the Harlettes as her Greek chorus: "These girls don’t know shit about Euripedes, but they know a lot about Trojans." Her delivery is friendly and inviting; her patter is largely about sex, but it’s not competitive or exclusionary. She’s even kind to her hecklers, laughing, "We’ll get to that later" instead of being thrown off-stride. When she talks, Midler succeeds at creating the feeling that she’s just sat down to share the latest jokes and gossip with her good friends. She has an intriguing combination of wonderful confidence and an open desire to please.
The picture quality is another matter. While the imagery is never exactly poor and improves greatly in the film’s second half, Chapter 5 has a particularly grainy quality and a number of small white scratches, as though the print went through one too many processes on its way to the DVD. The picture does become much sharper in later sequences and director Ritchie gets a striking, Japanese-theatre-style image at the beginning of a fog-shrouded pantomime at the start of Chapter 18.
Also, while ‘Divine Madness’ is a no-frills DVD -- although, blessedly, it remains in its original widescreen ratio -- the liner notes mention that two numbers, "Shiver Me Timbers" and "Rainbow Sleeve," included in the theatrical release, have been cut from this version. It would be interesting to know if the reason for this is artistic, technical or a problem with song rights, but this isn’t the sort of question that liner notes are known for answering.
Midler has a tendency to camp it up on the high-energy numbers -- her ability to sell a song while simultaneously spoofing is one of the things that has made her so popular. She goes through major teen drama on Chapter 16’s "Leader of the Pack," literally crawling on the floor. Still, when she wants to settle down with a ballad, she can switch off all impulses to irony and go for the throat. For those who prefer their emotions without satire, the best is saved for last, as Midler segues from a tender, aching cover of the Rolling Stones’ "You Can’t Always Get What You Want" in Chapter 20 to Chapter 21’s slow, resolute take on Bob Dylan’s "I Shall Be Released." The lyrics have been tweaked on the latter to reflect romantic rather than institutional anguish, but Midler sells it so well no one ought to mind.