BetteBack: Reviewer Doesn’t Get “Art or Bust”

The Register
Bette Midler on HBO gets an ‘A’ for visuals, ‘F for music
By Fred Rothenberg
Saturday, Aug. 18, 1984

Delores de Lago and her back-up group, all decked out in the latest in flippered mermaid costumes, belt out “We Are Family” and “I Will Survive” while zipping around in unison in motorized wheelchairs.

This unique choreography is interrupted only when de Lago and her troupe disembark to hop, slither – and even sing – on the stage. But the music, which includes “Hold That Tiger” on the accordion, is incidental to the act.

De Lago is really the divine Bette Midler, never ever to be confused with Frank Sinatra crooning at the local supper club, who brings her stylized and studied outrageousness to Home Box Office at 8 tonight and four other times this month in “Bette Midler: Art or Bust!”

Filmed at two performances at the University of Minnesota on Midler’s 1982-83 nationwide De Tour, this hour-long program is more an elongated music video than a concert.

According to the credits, this extravagant e n t e r t a i n m e nt w as “dreamed up” a nd “written down” by Midler, among others. Clearly it has her i m p r i n t: bizarre costumes, unusual dance sequences and an anti-technology theme that may get by most viewers.

Midler explained her intentions at a recent press conference. “The synthesizer has put some musicians out of business, and I see this f r u s t r a t i o n ,” she said. “People talk about floppy disks, and I can’t even plug in the toaster.

“This ( p r o g r am) is a reaction to that, kind of showing how we’re overwhelmed by that. People have forgotten about the important thing – the song, the humanity.”

Sadly, Midler has also forgotten about the song in “Art or Bust!” The visuals, including clever animations and shockingly freakish get-ups, can be e n t e r t a i n i ng and amus ing. The me rma ids in whe e l cha i rs are especially inspi r ed. But there’s ha rdly a n y t h i ng in the hour worth h u m m i n g.

“Art or B u s t !” succeeds as vi sual a r t; Midler’s c r e a t i v i ty can be saluted. But it f a i ls as music, almost appearing as if Midler’s songs a r en’t good e n o u g h, so every n umb er requires an elaborate vi sual t r a ck t h a t, at times, is fun b u t, other times, is excessive and d i s t r a c t i n g,

Only at the ve ry end, when Midl er is singing “The Rose” f rom her hit movie, does she pe r form wi t h o ut an out l andi sh prop or costume. And even in this n umb er she’s obscured most of the time by the closing credits.

The last 20 minutes has what Midler calls “a serious section,” and it o f f e rs the only emotiontinged mus i c. While sweetly singing “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” she’s twi r l ing what appears to be a hula hoop.

“Art or Bust” makes for f ine viewing, but not f ine listening. Maybe audiences should wa t ch Midler ‘s eccentric antics w i th the volume turned down.

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3 thoughts on “BetteBack: Reviewer Doesn’t Get “Art or Bust”

  1. Well I loved it, and even saw it live, but, I don’t think he’s 100% wrong, if I’m being honest. I actually saw the tour live twice, and I love everything bette does, especially live-but he does have some valid points-but when she sings ‘EVERYONE’S GONE TO THE MOON”-it melted me! But i really think she bounced back BIG TIME when she did Diva Las Vegas-her voice was never stronger and I saw that show live twice as well at radio City Music Hall and when I watched it, I watched it with my lover who was a musician (he died 13 years ago tomorrow (I love you and miss you Barry!) and some of his band members who were not particular fans of Bette, but who all were very impressed with her voice, and they all commented on how she’d been working on her voice because she sang soooo great and made it look effortless!

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