In the 1964 film The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Debbie Reynolds sings the song, ‘I Ain’t Down Yet’, and this defiant little ditty could easily be the anthem for Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens’ good-natured documentary on Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. Reynolds may be in her eighties and Fisher may have had significant drug problems and mental health issues, but the two women are far from down, and what comes through most in Bright Lights is their ability to keep going and never give up.
Bloom and Stevens are very occasionally heard in Bright Lights, querying something in order to get just a little bit more out of their subjects, but for the most part the narration, as it is, comes from Reynolds and Fisher, both of whom talk freely, frankly and frequently at some pace about every aspect of their lives. One particularly amusing and surprising sequence, for instance, sees Fisher and long-time friend Griffin Dunne sat on a bed discussing the time he took Fisher’s virginity. Whilst Reynolds may be a little bit more reserved than the infamously open Fisher, she’s still happy to reveal a lot about her life, just with a little more studio-trained reserve than her daughter.
The two women live next door to each other – with Fisher caring for her mother to some degree – and there are times when one can’t help but recall Sunset Boulevard a touch; but Reynolds is no Norma Desmond in reality, and a one woman show we see her perform actually looks pretty decent and funny, touching and well attended. There is a sense that both women are defined by their pasts though, with Reynolds in the process of selling off her huge Hollywood memorabilia collection and Fisher living in her house crammed full of various objects she’s amassed over the years, including a life-size Princess Leia sex doll. But ultimately they seem at ease with their past and the film rather poignantly ends with Reynolds collecting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. This also leads to a rather dramatic final twenty minutes, as Reynolds’ health has deteriorated and we see Fisher struggling with the fact that her mother, who has always seemed so full of life, is getting old.
Bloom and Fisher are very respectful of their subjects – never diving into their past problems more than the two women are willing to do themselves – but perhaps to a fault, as the documentary does feel at times so officially sanctioned as to almost be a publicity video for how great these two women are. You can’t help but feel it would be hard to do otherwise though, as they really are both bold, strong and absolutely fabulous characters.
The doc was produced by HBO, where it will reportedly play next year, and there’s little here in the form that really makes it stand out from a number of other Hollywood documentaries that you might see on television. But when you have subjects this fascinating and access this good, perhaps just sitting back and letting them tell their own stories is not such a bad way to go.
Unremarkable in its approach, but utterly remarkable in its content, Bright Lights is a frequently hilarious and subtly moving doc that paints an effective portrait of both Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher.