Warner Bros. // 1976 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // December 22nd, 2006
A film where Barbra Streisand's voice is actually compared to fishing. Seriously.
John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson, Blade) is a washed up, burnt out rock star whose on the verge of total self-destruction. He constantly cuts concerts short and drinks like a fish with an enlarged liver. But after visiting a local club and seeing a sensational new singer named Esther Hoffman (Barbra Streisand, The Prince of Tides), Howard becomes inspired. He woos the woman, and slowly she comes around to his crude, crafty charms. Believing she has a voice that will arouse massive record sales, Howard records Esther, and sure enough, she scores a monumental hit. But the sudden skyrocketing attention paid to his gal pal -- and eventual wife -- becomes far too much for Howard to bear. As she films TV specials and collects Grammy Awards, he crawls inside the bottle and imbibes himself stupid. Esther just wants to be happy; Howard craves the attention of being famous again. Naturally, their cross-purpose existence will lead to a tragic end, especially since hubby Howard cannot sit comfortably by and watch as A Star is Born.
Let's face facts, shall we? As a singer, no one can touch Barbra Streisand. Consider her voice like a big stick of "butta," or recognize that in a medium that tends to reward image over ability, Babs can croon the bejesus out of the current crop of so-called popular vocalists. But here's the rub, and it's a pretty substantial one: Streisand as a movie star is a major hit-or-miss proposition. Now hold on, all you Barbra-philes. Don't tear me a new ace hole just yet. A review of her cinematic résumé exposes the good (Funny Girl, What's Up Doc?), the bad (The Main Event, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever), and the truly, truly ugly (the less said about Nuts and The Mirror Has Two Faces, the better). Wedged right in there between the terrible and the trying, this routine remake of the classic show business weeper strives for rock and roll significance. But with a cast that includes a barely grown Gary Busey, a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Robert Englund, a disconnected Paul Mazursky, and the sly, sexy sinew of lead Kris Kristofferson, A Star Is Born is a major mess. Like witnessing a battle between blues-based belting and middle of the road adult contemporary balladry, this misguided musical has no real connection to the scattered soundscape of the era. No one is claiming that 1976 was a banner year for popular songs, but the oddball combination of styles employed here -- everything from pseudo-disco to overblown showstoppers -- is an aural albatross around the movie's already hampered narrative neck.
Indeed, one of A Star is Born's major problems is how uniformly crappy the tunes really are. Since they make up a grand portion of the plot -- this is filmmaking as a showcase for the talent taking up the lens -- each number gets a near full length workout, recorded live onstage to conform to Streisand's "no lip syncing" demands. That means that stupid little numbers like "Queen Bee" and "Woman on the Moon" gets endless minutes of unnecessary screen time, while the characterization of our leads is left in almost uniformly single dimensions. As a matter of fact, each star here can have their onscreen counterpart described in a single word: Kristofferson's John Norman Howard? Drunk. Streisand's Esther Hoffman? Kvetch. Frankly, what they see in each other besides some suspect George McGovern-esque sex appeal is a question for scholars to contemplate and explain. The script by John Gregory Dunne and Joan Gideon (with a little input from under-duress director Frank Pierson) is a clinic of clichés, out of date rock expressions, and perceived portents of cool. We are supposed to see Esther's rapid rise to stardom as a one-way ticket to unhappiness, and Norman's nonchalant journey even deeper into the bottle as something significant. But since we know this story by heart, thanks to the Janet Gaynor/Frederic March version from 1937 and the definitive 1954 classic with Judy Garland and James Mason, the switch to the music side of celebrity doesn't freshen up what is, in general, formulaic and flawed.
Granted, there's some great source material potential here. How a fading superstar deals with the demands of his legacy, and the acceptance of his spouse over his own time tested talent, has the makings of a major motion picture statement. Done correctly, with the right amount of attention to detail and a smart, eloquent screenplay, an insightful epic could be crafted. But just like the rock-retrofitted remake of The Jazz Singer starring Neil Diamond, the redux's core conceit is fatally flawed. Since we hate the songs (or at best, find them kitschy or clunky) and don't really understand the attraction, we find ourselves lost in a haze of Hoffman/Howard hormones. The sex scenes between Streisand and Kristofferson are like gag cards you'd find at a Spencer's Gifts -- all softcore subtlety and bubble bath buffoonery. You can't blame this on the director, however. Pierson, at the time, went public with his anger over being bossed around by Streisand in an infamous New York/New West magazine piece. Indeed, as executive producer, lead actress, principal songwriter, and the individual contractually given final cut of the film, you could really call this the diva's first directing gig. For all intents and purposes, what you see up on the screen is Ms. Thang's handiwork, from the antique clothes she borrowed from her own collection to the insertion of autobiographical material revolving around her relationship with then boy toy, hairdresser turned moviemaker Jon Peters.
The results are ridiculous, ruined by a focus on facets of the storyline we care little about. In fact, most of the time A Star is Born feels like a concert film being occasionally interrupted by badly staged scenes of romantic entanglement. As actors, Streisand and Kristofferson are on different dimensional performance planets. She is certain and crisp in her attitudes and responses. He's like a sloppy Marlon Brando impersonator, literally reaching around for the proper line reading every time it's his turn to talk. It makes one wonder how the film would have played if Streisand's original choices -- Neil Diamond, Mick Jagger, or the King himself, Elvis -- had panned out. While there is some minor carnal chemistry between the two, neither one convinces us that they are potential pop stars, which is odd considering that both were, and more or less remain so until this day. So firmly stuck in the age in which it was made that you can practically feel the effect of Frampton coming alive, Saturday night getting its fever, and the Bee Gees begging to somehow stay alive, A Star is Born may be amenable to someone who's a huge Streisand junkie. But your devotion would have to be pretty deep, and the possible withdrawal awfully painful, to put yourself through this 140 minutes of misery.
You've got to give Warner Brothers credit, though. They've gone all out to try and paint A Star is Born as some manner of mid-'70s classic (it was a hit, raking in around $70 million at the box office). Touting the five Golden Globes it won (now there's a reason to be proud) and highlighting the individuals who worked on the soundtrack (and if names like Paul Willams, Kenny Loggins, and Rupert Hines don't have you boogying in your boudoir, well...), the cover art also copies the famous photo of Kristofferson and Streisand in a strange semi-clothed embrace. As for the technical specifications, we get a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that is colorful, detailed, and loaded with plenty of Streisand-sheltering soft focus. Indeed, several scenes in the film seem practically hazy thanks to this fashion freshening approach. Sonically, the songs have all been remastered into an acceptable multi-channel mix. The Dolby Digital 5.1 works fine in the concert scenes (the spatial ambiance is preserved perfectly), but for other numbers the aural elements make the live singing sound prerecorded.
As for extras, the celestial Ms. S is on hand to provide an audio commentary, and in true Babs fashion, it's almost exclusively about her. She makes it very clear which decisions were hers (read: almost all), why she believes Kristofferson was the best choice in the end (answer: "he's sure cute!"), and how certain artistic choices -- the color of a wall, the design of a dress -- can aid in the overall appreciation of the story. She sort of drifts away toward the end, only explaining the occasional inspired decision on her part. It's a contextual mannerism that she carries over to the costume test reel (which she narrates) and the selection of deleted scenes (which include her live guitar version of the Oscar winning title song, "Evergreen"). While most of this material is interesting from a pure curio standpoint, it would have been really refreshing to get Pierson in on the act, perhaps via his own contradictory conversation, or an accusatory interview. But since Barbra's name is on the production credits, there was literally no chance of that happening. Sadly, it eliminates a lot of the backstage drama that would have made this otherwise pointless film a hilarious hoot to rediscover.
Both Streisand and Kristofferson survived this dreary dumbness. Even Pierson went on to reclaim his cinematic mantle with the excellent HBO dramas Citizen Cohn and Truman. Yet it's obvious the current crop of filmmakers have yet to learn their lesson regarding A Star is Born's ability to be reinterpreted for a post-modern audience. The only version of this storyline more reprehensible than this Me Decade disaster is the recent rumor of a Beyonce/Jamie Foxx fashioned take. If anything can make this soft rock flop seem like a masterpiece, it's the nauseating notion of a hip hop version. A Star is Born may seem timeless. Unfortunately, once tested, it shows its inherent ineptitude.
Review content copyright © 2006 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Full Length Audio Commentary by Barbra Streisand
* Deleted and Extended Scenes with Optional Commentary by Barbra Streisand
* Costume Tests with Optional Audio Commentary by Barbra Streisand