How did an 18-year-old working in a Hawaiian pineapple canning factory rise up to become one of Broadway’s biggest stars? That was the question asked by Alan Yentob in Bette Midler: the Divine Miss M (BBC2) ”“ the third in this promising new series of the always reliable Imagine… strand.
Did the BBC’s venerable one get a good answer? Well, yes. If there was one thing we learnt about the 68-year-old Midler, it’s that she still likes to talk. Yentob barely got a word in edgeways, as he padded round New York, reverently putting questions to the singer-songwriter, actress and comedian.
Midler, thankfully, had a decent story to tell. Raised in Honolulu to a Jewish family, the singer wistfully recalled her journey to New York in the 1960s to follow her dream of stage singing on Broadway. Fame soon followed after the 1967 Broadway hit Fiddler on the Roof, and Midler quickly became established as a New York gay icon ”“ singing, rather eccentrically, in underground bathhouses to droves of male fans adorned in only small white towels.
It was here that Imagine… hit its stride. The Midler’s early performances was second to none. We saw a wailing, Janis Joplin-like figure developing her mixture of Broadway, the blues, and burlesque, before moving on to interviews with those who saw her act develop in its early, formative stages. “She was everything you were afraid your little girl would grow up to be. Or your little boy,” said one commentator, reflecting on Midler’s infamous stage show of the early 1970s.
Is the film too slavish to its subject? Probably. Is Midler worth it? Quite possibly. Should Alan Yentob persist in wearing trainers alongside a black suit? Probably not.