Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds get touching tribute in 'Bright Lights'

Carrie Fisher's daughter talks famous family
Carrie Fisher's daughter talks famous family

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(CNN)More heartwarming than heartbreaking, "Bright Lights" is a touching tribute to the powerful attachment between Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a mother and daughter who, in their love for and gripes about each other, clearly left very little unsaid.

HBO took the very it-is-TV-like step of moving the documentary's airdate up in the wake of the two actresses' one-day-apart deaths, seemingly to capitalize on all the media attention. But this 94-minute film, directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, is so lovely, life-affirming and filled with memories that given the grief expressed by fans, it feels more like a public service than crass commercialism.
Showcasing Fisher's rapier wit throughout, the movie opens with the star chatting with her famous mom, as home movies of Fisher as a beaming child unspool across the screen. "You knew that I was going to doubt it later so you filmed me being happy," Fisher groans.
What follows is a highly emotional and oddly universal look at the relationship between a grown-up kid and her aging mom -- a kind of love story, thanks to the intensity of their connection, magnified by their under-the-microscope lives.
    The two lived next door to each other, with Reynolds enduring her daughter's playful sniping, but Fisher also exhibiting the sort of protectiveness that takes root when roles are flipped and the child becomes the parent. (Fisher's brother Todd is also prominently featured and one of the film's producers.)
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    There's an equally fascinating sense of Reynolds' generation of show-business troupers, someone still dragging herself on stage to perform in her 80s, even amid failing health, and almost appearing to feed off the adulation of the crowds.
    Age, Fisher says in regard to Reynolds and her larger-than-life cinematic history, is "horrible for all of us, but she falls from a greater height."
    Along the way, there's tons of wonderful minutia, from footage of Reynolds' screen test at age 16 to her performing with Liberace. In another clip, Reynolds brings a 15-year-old Carrie on stage during her nightclub act to sing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" -- a hilarious moment with the benefit of hindsight, considering that she later married the song's writer, Paul Simon.
    Fisher is also seen attending an autograph convention, where she signs photos and memorabilia for $70 a pop. While she's obviously willing to cash in on her "Star Wars" fame, she refers to the whole event as a "celebrity lap dance."
    From that slightly jaundiced perspective, "Bright Lights" plays like a fitting companion to Fisher's one-woman show "Wishful Drinking," which HBO turned into a special in 2011. Only here, there's a genuine undercurrent of sweetness, especially in the closing portion, which builds toward Fisher presenting her mom the Screen Actors Guild life achievement award in 2015 -- about as beautiful a coda as one could imagine.
    People have a tendency to become hyperbolic and a tad maudlin over celebrity deaths, a phenomenon magnified by social media. Still, the idea of Reynolds succumbing one day after her beloved daughter did feel like a gut punch, and assumes an almost mythic status watching them interact during the filming.
    "Bright Lights" not only captures the unique nature of their bond -- forged, as it was, under such intense scrutiny -- but what made them special, both individually and together. At a time fraught with cynicism, that's the kind of warming light those even remotely moved by their deaths should welcome basking in.
    "Bright Lights" premieres January 7 at 8 p.m. on HBO.