2016 was a tough year in a lot of respects, and the deaths of actress Carrie Fisher and her equally beloved and talented mother Debbie Reynolds within days of each other at the year’s end felt like the rancid icing on an already inedible cake. Their deaths were surprising in terms of their timing, and yet overwhelmingly poignant when looked upon in hindsight. Their relationship was like many mother-daughter pairings. They loved each other. They hated each other. They came together. They fell apart. Ultimately, they accepted each other through all the good and bad to become more than just a parent and their offspring, but unlikely best friends and confidants.
They were well liked, highly regarded, and commanded legions of fans, making the airing of the HBO documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds this Saturday night (bumped up from its original airdate of March as a well meaning and spot on memoriam) more than a little bittersweet. Directed by Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom, Bright Lights eschews standard biographical documentary pitfalls and what emerges is a vibrant, lively, moving look at the little things that strengthened the relationship between Fisher and Reynolds and the passions that keep them going. It’s mostly just watching two people hanging around their homes and shooting the shit with the viewer, and with these two at the heart of the film, it’s beautiful, fun, and endearing.
Sure, it’s hard to talk about either of them without talking about the dark stuff. Reynolds was infamously dumped by Carrie’s crooner father, Eddie Fisher, in favour of Liz Taylor. Reynolds in recent years nearly lost every cent she had trying to create a museum dedicated to the preservation of millions of dollars worth of classic Hollywood memorabilia. Fisher’s life was marked by struggles with drug abuse and bipolar disorder. Both are more than willing to talk candidly about such things on camera, and Fisher’s even willing to allow one of her manic episodes to be filmed, but Stevens and Bloom aren’t as interested in those details. As filmmakers, they know that viewers are probably bringing what they already know (correctly or incorrectly) about Reynolds and Fisher into their viewing of the film, or at the very least that such things can easily be looked up in a book or on the internet. They instead want to give the viewers a sense of who they are as human beings, not as headline making icons.
For years, Reynolds and Fisher have lived next door to each other in homes that are designed as night and day differences of each other, yet befitting of each of their personalities. Reynolds’ home is a refined, well kept one that presents a proper face to the world. Fishers’ has unique, humorous artwork and naughty jokes posted up around every corner, and perhaps most bafflingly and awesomely, a hand painted Ghanaian poster for the critically maligned 90s slasher thriller Dr. Giggles that’s just hanging out on her front porch for the world to see.
But the opposites in their personalities certainly attract, as Fisher (who’s becoming a powerhouse documentarian as of late) and Bloom are consistently pointing out. Fisher and Reynolds are constantly working and performing, even putting the needs of their audiences before their own health, especially in the elder mother’s case. Without a stage and without Fisher, it seems like life wouldn’t have been worth living for Reynolds. Long past the tension that led to Fisher penning the screenplay to the mostly autobiographical Postcards from the Edge, the daughter had become the only consistently friendly ear for Reynolds.
The most powerful thing about Bright Lights is witnessing first hand just how deeply Fisher loved her mother, and how much respect they have for each other as people and professionals, not just as family. Reynolds will tell Fisher anything that’s on her mind, often telling things she would never tell Stevens or Bloom because she comes from an old school point of view that has made her think she has to wear a smile all the time and act like nothing is wrong. It’s moving to watch Reynolds confide in her outspoken daughter. It’s a case of a mother realizing how wise their child has become and finding in them an impartial, loving outlet.
The film builds to what would have been an overwhelmingly emotional climax even if both actresses were still with us. Fisher does her best to negotiate her mother’s appearance at the Screen Actors Guild Awards where Reynolds is due to receive a lifetime achievement award. Reynolds is already in poor health by this point, and Fisher’s level of concern reaches a point where she nearly breaks down, but only the viewer, the show’s staff, and her brother Todd (who plays a large part in the film) know this. She never tells her mother, instead showing concern and taking cues from her mother, listening and remaining present.
By the end of Bright Lights I felt like I had spent time getting to know people who seem delightful but slightly chaotic to be around. I expected that early on there would be some tears tied to the memory that neither of them were with us anymore, but throughout I was captivated and having fun learning about all the things one could never learn from a book, tabloid, or rigidly constructed sit down interview. I laughed more than I cried, and laughed heartily. I smiled throughout. It wasn’t until after the credits had rolled that I teared up and remembered that they had passed. For a moment, they were still with us, and I was thankful to Fisher and Bloom for their efforts. I never got to know them on this level while they were alive, but by the end of Bright Lights I was proud and moved to think about how much I got to learn about them.
Viewers will likely cry by the bucket load watching Bright Lights, so it’s good to know that in addition to its HBO premiere this weekend, people can head down to TIFF Bell Lightbox at 7:45 pm on Saturday, January 7 for a simulcast hosted by TIFF’s Jesse Wente and television personality and writer Lainey Lui, which will end with a special reception where people can toast to the memory of Fisher and Reynolds, swap stories, and share similarly happy memories. It’s a lovely touch, and one that I’m sure plenty of people will take them up on. It’s an excellent documentary, and here’s hoping that this leads to more theatrical showings in the future beyond its home on HBO.
Bright Lights premieres on HBO at 8 pm EST on Saturday, January 7. You can also catch it at TIFF Bell Lightbox on the same night starting at 7:45 pm. Tickets for the Lightbox event are now on sale. Check out TIFF’s website for more details.
Check out the trailer for Bright Lights: