Doc Stories festival opens with Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Quick note: Yes, I’ve been changing Bayflicks’ design a lot lately. Hopefully this one will last.

Growing up with famous parents can’t be easy–especially if your father left home for Elizabeth Taylor, and your relentlessly upbeat mother insisted that you follow in her footsteps. And then, decades later, a bunch of documentarians invade your privacy to record your troubled family.

The Doc Stories film festival opened Thursday night at the Castro with Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a look at the mother and daughter who starred (separately) in Singin’ in the Rain
and Star Wars.

Evening shows almost always start with an organ concert at the Castro. Appropriately, the organist last night stuck to songs Reynolds sang in her many movies–mostly tunes from Singin in the Rain. But the organist didn’t honor her famous daughter with John Williams’ famous Star Wars score.

San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan started the show proper, bringing up directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, as well as producer Todd Fisher. The family relationships may get a little complicated here. Todd Fisher is Debbie Reynolds’ son and Carrie Fisher’s kid brother. In addition to producing the movie, he’s one of the subjects, and the documentary shows us his home, his wife, and his wife’s pet chicken. Co-director Fisher Stevens isn’t related.

After brief comments, they screened Bright Lights.

Debbie Reynolds was an MGM contract player in the 1940s, and when this documentary was shot, she was still doing a one-woman live show. Her daughter, Carrie Fisher, struggled with mental issues and drug addiction, became an icon with Star Wars, and has a remarkable wit. Daughter Carrie worries that her mother is pushing herself too hard.

While largely sympathetic, this documentary doesn’t flinch from its portrait of a barely functional family. We learn about Fisher’s father issues, Reynolds’ obsession with looks and perceived optimism, and the strange circumstances of how Fisher lost her virginity (her mother wanted to supervise).

The movie is at times breezy, funny, touching, and sad. I give it a B.

Last night was probably the film’s only theatrical screening in the Bay Area. It will have theatrical runs in Los Angeles and New York later this year–presumably for Oscar eligibility. It will run on HBO in March.

After the film, Cowan, Bloom, Stevens, and Todd Fisher came on stage again. Debbie Reynolds appeared briefly via Skype. When Todd asked his mother what had happened since they finished shooting the movie, she responded “I’m still here.”

Carrie Fisher was not able to attend.

A Q&A followed the Skype discussion. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • There’s a battle going on about what she can do. In August, she had a stroke. But like Molly Brown, she’s unsinkable.
  • Debbie wanted to know her lines when the camera was on her. “I know what a documentary is, but what do I say?”
  • We filmed for about a year, year and a half. We had a monumental amount of footage. The editors deserve massive credit.
  • She [Reynolds] always knew where the camera was. The challenge was to get her off of that. She never looks terrible. She doesn’t wake up messy like you and me.
  • Todd Fisher: My grandmother wasn’t funny at all, and was very critical of my mother [Reynolds]. Grandfather had a sense of humor. But Carrie is like no other; she just sees the world very differently. That’s part of her disorder.

Doc Stories runs through Sunday.