Even in a cheerier context, HBO’s documentary “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” would be hard to get through without tears. Now, of course, forget about it — the tears start in the first minute. This strange, emotionally frank and thoroughly entertaining film, which was a hit last year at Cannes and which the network intended to bring out in March, will instead air Saturday night, given the tandem deaths of Fisher, who died Dec. 27 at 60, and her screenlegend mother, Reynolds, who died, grief-stricken, a day later at 84.
Had things gone as planned, the movie would be celebrated weeks from now as one more darkly comic examination of an extremely rare, not always pleasant, but enviably tight mother-daughter relationship that reflected the highs and lows of celebrity status — an aspect that Fisher mined over and over for material, whether in her novel-turned-film “Postcards From the Edge,” in her one-woman stage show “Wishful Drinking,” or in recent memoirs and revelations about her own struggles with mental illness.
“Bright Lights” would have also had — and indeed still has — something important to tell us about mortality and the flashes of anguish and devotion that come with caring for an elderly parent. (Or, for that matter, caring for an adult child who struggles with sanity.)
If they hadn’t died, a colder critic may have wondered just how many times we needed to know Fisher’s innermost feelings about her mother’s tabloid divorce from Eddie Fisher in the 1950s and their daughter’s own fated ascent to movie stardom in the 1970s in a role (Princess Leia Organa from the “Star Wars” saga) that would both haunt and sustain her. Now that they’re gone, the film instantly becomes the loveliest farewell gift. It’s as satisfying as a good wake.
“Bright Lights,” directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, catches up with the pair circa 2013, at the quirky Beverly Hills compound where Reynolds lived in the house next to Fisher’s. We see the daughter in a fit of worry over her mother’s intention to fly to Connecticut for a set of shows at the Mohegan Sun casino; there is fussing over packing and logistics, bouts of fretting and reassurances, grand gestures of will and acquiescence — spliced with a rough history, in motion-picture clips and home movies, that give the viewer a hint of who these people are. Performing, Fisher observes, is what keeps her mother alive: “It feeds her in a way family cannot. People aren’t cooperative; audiences are. When you’re her, they are.”
Bloom and Stevens make use of a gold mine of private and public archival footage. Fans of Reynold’s glamour years, as well as fans of Fisher’s sardonic take on the hidden hurts of that era, will appreciate the treasures unearthed here — many of them courtesy of Todd Fisher, Carrie’s younger brother, who shares his mother’s passion for memorabilia and the preservation of family history.
Reynolds was a fervent collector of golden-era movie costumes, props and other ephemera, hoping someday to establish an official Hollywood museum; “Bright Lights” contains a heartbreaking scene in which she reluctantly auctions most of it off, not only to pay bills, but in recognition that the museum will never come to pass. Carrie, meanwhile, adorned her own home in all manner of provocative outsider art and kitschy treasures of another, quirkier sort.
Separated only by a sidewalk, the two women could not have had more different aesthetic styles and personal outlooks. It’s sometimes like watching a more solvent, lucid rendition of “Grey Gardens.” Their approach to limelight differs (Reynolds revels in it; Fisher distrusts its allure), but if someone starts playing a piano, either woman will break out into song.
Reynolds is sunshine to the end, even on days when she struggles to sit for the filmmakers’ camera and questions; Fisher, of course, is quite forthcoming about the endless clouds above — one of which, she knows, will bring the inevitable day when her mother dies.
While “Bright Lights” bounces between past and present, Bloom and Stevens wisely allow the narrative to wander where it wants, mirroring the daily lives of their subjects. Where Reynolds is a study in keeping it together, Fisher gives lessons in letting it all hang out. And while her mother travels to serenade her peers in casinos hither and yon, Fisher, too, must occasionally travel to science-fiction conventions for what she wryly calls “lap dances” with “Star Wars” devotees, who stand in line all day in their Princess Leia cinnamon-bun wigs and Darth Vader T-shirts just to plunk down $50 in cash and share a brief exchange with her while she signs a photo or some other piece of “Star Wars” merchandise.
“They love you,” someone observes, while Fisher takes a cigarette break on the roof.
“They love her,” Fisher says of the princess. “I’m her custodian. And I’m as close as they’re going to get.” The film then accompanies Fisher to England, where, to her apparent astonishment, she must once again suit up to make 2015’s “The Force Awakens” (“Star Wars Seven . . . ty-two,” Fisher deadpans). First she must shed considerable weight, goaded by a trainer who keeps pouring out the ubiquitous cans of Coca-Cola that follow her as closely as her French bulldog therapy pet, Gary Fisher. “Bright Lights” doesn’t seem to know what to do with the fact that Fisher’s physical condition was far from ideal — she acknowledges it but doesn’t really delve.
A lifetime-achievement trophy looms for Reynolds at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards, sending the compound into a state of panic over whether she’ll be physically able to attend the ceremony and give an acceptance speech. Absorbing (and contributing to) her mother’s stress, Fisher has a meltdown, including a night when the filmmakers document one of her manic-depressive episodes. “You know what would be so cool?” Fisher asks. “To get to the end of my personality and just lay in the sun.”
With help from a small army of assistants, mother and daughter sufficiently gussied themselves up, got in that limo, and leaned on one another to get through the night. Reynolds was gracious and beautiful; Fisher was sharp and funny. The show, you see, must always go on.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (95 minutes) airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.