A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Think of a concert film and you think of a camera bolted to the floor in front of the stage and shooting straight up into the singer's nostrils, which are half-concealed by the microphone. Those films are all right as recordings of song performances, but as cinema they stink. Some directors have broken out of the mold by making documentaries about the event of a concert; the best of those films is still Michael Wadleigh's “Woodstock” (1970).
Here Michael Ritchie, whose background is almost entirely in dramatic features (“Down-hill Racer,” “The Candidate,” “The Bad News Bears”), tries a new approach. There are times in Ritchie's Divine “Madness” when he seems to be trying to turn a live Bette Midler stage concert into a Hollywood genre musical. He opens as if “Divine Madness” is going to be a traditional concert film. Bette charges on stage, the audience cheers, there's an electric performance feel. But from that beginning, Ritchie subtly moves into the material until there are times when we almost forget we're watching an actual concert performance.
Ritchie's first decision was to declare an absolute ban on visible cameras. At no moment during Divine Madness do we see any cameras or any members of Ritchie's crew onstage, even though twenty cameras were used to shoot the performance. Ritchie and Midler used a week of rehearsal to choreograph the camera moves and time them to Midler's own abundant energy. So instead of looking beyond the performer and being distracted by cinematographers carrying hand-held cameras and sneaking around in their Adidas, we see only the stage, Midler, and her backup singers, the Harlettes. Ritchie also uses camera techniques that are rarely seen in concert films. There are, for example, crane shots in this movie, shots where the camera swoops up to look down on Midler or to circle down and toward her. That's especially effective during the Magic Lady sequence, in which Bette portrays a sort of dreamy bag lady on a park bench. This sequence comes closest to capturing the feel of a studio musical. That's not to say that “Divine Madness” loses the impact of a live concert performance. This movie is amazingly alive and involving, and Midler, who has become one of the great live performers, has an energy that steamrollers through an incredible variety of material.
When you think about “Divine Madness” after it's over, you realize what a wide range of material Midler covers. She does rock n' roll, she sings blues, she does a hilarious stand-up comedy routine, she plays characters (including a tacky show-lounge performer who enters in a motorized wheelchair outfitted with a palm tree), she stars in bizarre pageantry, and she wears costumes that Busby Berkeley would have found excessive. That's one reason “Divine Madness” doesn't drag: Midler changes pace so often that there's never too much of the same thing.