LOS ANGELES Bette Midler has answered endless questions about her up and down movie career. Her latest film, the decade-spanning tribute to USO troupers “For the Boys,” offers an opportunity to discuss a subject equally dear to Midler’s heart: the ups and downs of American popular music from the 1940s through the present.
In the film, which Midler’s All Girl Productions company has been developing for six years, the Divine Miss M plays Dixie Leonard, a mother and singer who teams up with opportunistic song-and-dance man Eddie Sparks (James Caan) in World War II, sticks with him professionally through the early days of television and a Korean War tour, then reunites with him for a ghastly Vietnam gig after a 15-year estrangement. The film concludes in modern times, with the contentious, now octogenarian hoofers receiving a presidential award.
More than just a musical, “For the Boys” (opening Wednesday in Chicago) attempts an ambitious study of how American culture and attitudes changed over half a century. While the various political polarities of the different wars shape one aspect of that story, music’s mutation from big band era swing to rock ‘n’ roll to a more corporate pop sound tells another tale.
Midler, whose show business career grew out of the early ’70s New York cabaret scene, made her first mainstream splash with a 1973 recording of the World War II chestnut “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Although the Hawaii-bred performer has gone through numerous musical incarnations since then – a Janis Joplinish rocker for her Oscar-nominated film debut, “The Rose” (1979); Zeitgeist balladeer of contemporary soft hits such as “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “From a Distance” – her love for the good old stuff is evident throughout “For the Boys.”
Directed by “The Rose’s” Mark Rydell (a onetime USO man himself), with a score by Dave Grusin and bandleading by Jack Sheldon, “For the Boys” offers up such little known swing kickers as Hoagy Carmichael‘s “Billy-a-Dick” and Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ “Stuff Like That There.” Later on, there’s much Johnny Mercer and, by the time we get to ‘Nam, a hauntingly spare rendition of the Beatles’ “In My Life.”
No wonder Midler, whose sassy comic persona becomes noticeably subdued when her serious musicologist side comes out, stuck with “For the Boys” for so long. “I always had complete faith in this project,” the 45-year-old actress-singer said. “It had something to do with the fact that I loved the music so much. I felt that it had to have a shot because I had to sing those songs.
“One of the things we wanted to show was how the fashions in music changed as manners and attitudes changed. I believed in that idea. I believed in the relationship between the two characters. When you stripped the story away, I believed what the underlying conflict was. The fact that (the film’s issues) were cloaked in this wonderfully ephemeral, show business, singing and dancing, sweetness and light thing made it all the more interesting to me.”
Listening to her radio on the outskirts of Honolulu, the light but infectious quality of big band music was one of the biggest influences on Midler’s childhood.
“It had this tremendous energy and wit,” she said of swing. “The players were very colorful, the sound was terribly exciting, very young and completely American. And the lyrical content, for the most part, wasn’t sober. It was full of joy and wit.”
So, to Midler’s way of thinking, was the rawer rock ‘n’ roll sound that began replacing big band music in the mid-’50s. It wasn’t until the influence of folk singers turned rockers, such as Bob Dylan, manifested in the 1960s that pop music began losing its juice, she believes. Not that that was necessarily a bad thing.
“That was the real turning point, when people realized that you could express really serious ideas through popular music,” Midler said. “In the ’60s, I remember being electrified all the time. You turned on the radio in order to hear who was doing what now. Even into the middle ’70s, when the Eagles phenomenon was happening, people were still genuinely galvanized by music.”
Although the subsequent punk and new wave movements, as well as individual acts in still-unfolding genres such as rap and heavy metal, intrigue Midler, she generally laments the recent state of pop music.
“There’s nothing I really don’t like,” she said. “I see value in all kinds of popular music. That’s why it surprises me that people throw their music away. Here we are, Americans, and our pop music is a real treasure. Yet the record-buying public, as a whole, has cast the older music aside. And music has diminished. Modern pop has its moments. It’s not all great, but the swing stuff probably wasn’t all great, either. In hindsight, you tend to dig up the gems and focus on them.
“But I have to say I’m not all that crazy about what’s going on in the pop world today. I do try, and I’m very grateful for the ballads. People love to hear me sing them and I love to do them. But the radio only plays a certain sound and that’s too bad because my interest in music is so wide-ranging.” Into the music
When she first came to New York, following a bit part in the movie “Hawaii,” Midler quickly got wired into the music scene. Playing one of Tevye’s daughters onstage in “Fiddler on the Roof” at night, she spent her days listening to old blues and torch song recordings. Her first solo acts combined renditions of “God Bless the Child” and “Am I Blue” with her trademark “dreadful patter,” as she calls it – campy, dishy monologues that went over well at the comedy clubs and gay bathhouses where she worked.
When her movie career slumped after “The Rose,” Midler busied herself with elaborate live shows. Revived with the release of “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986), Midler’s acting career has taken up most of her time over the last five years; recording and daughter Sophie gobbled up the rest.
Although she has performed at AIDS benefits and a few industry functions, Midler misses the live grind. “I loved it,” she said with a sigh. “I loved making this picture because I loved standing in front of that band and having them blow at you all night long. It is a great, great feeling.” Two other projects
So great, in fact, that Midler is still nurturing two other movie musical projects: biographies of chanteuse Lotte Lenya and all-female bandleader Ina Ray Hutton. On the recording front, she would like to make “a rock ‘n’ roll record and have people think of me as legitimate,” as well as an album of late ’40s cool jazz numbers “and feel that I hadn’t shortchanged anyone in that world, either.”
And although she may not be thrilled with the current state of pop, Midler believes in the restorative power of music so movingly displayed in “For the Boys.”
“You know what the great part about it is? It still remains an avenue of tremendous potential; it’s still an avenue of great expression.
“Everything passes and everything changes. My thing is to encourage people to be interested in more than just what they hear on the radio. After all, the older you get, the less you want to have missed out on.”