Warner Bros. // 1976 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // February 22nd, 2013
The star that is Barbra Streisand was born in the '60s, on Broadway and in clubs, where her powerful voice and unique presence earned her success while still in her early twenties.
She came to films as a star, and won an Oscar for her first role (Funny Girl) in 1968. She averaged a film a year up to 1977; most were successful, and every film was a Streisand film.
In the mid-'70s, Streisand and her then-partner, Jon Peters, got the idea to remake that old chestnut, A Star is Born. There were at least three previous versions: What Price Hollywood (1932), a second (under the title A Star is Born) made in 1937, and a musical version with Judy Garland from 1954, arguably the best -- and best-remembered -- of the bunch.
Streisand and Peters considered Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, and Marlon Brando for the male lead, a washed-up rock star. When these choices didn't pan out, they ended up with Kris Kristofferson (Lone Star).
By the way, she is no longer Esther Blodgett, renamed Vicki Lester; she's Esther Hoffman, and Norman Maine has become the more '70s rock-friendly John Norman Howard.
While the production might have been problematic, the film was a huge commercial success, making a whole pile of money in its original run, plus more piles from its soundtrack, which included the Oscar winning song "Evergreen." Never a critical favorite, it went on to win five Golden Globes, including awards for Streisand and Kristofferson.
And now, it's on Blu-ray.
John Norman Howard (Kristofferson) is a rock star who's rocked out. Addled by too much booze, too many late nights, and too much rock stardom, he's at a point where he can barely start a show, much less finish one.
One night, he stumbles into a club where the Oreos are performing. John finds himself taken with the lead singer (Streisand), whose dynamic voice and snappy personality impress him. After a bit of rocky pursuit, he takes up with her, and soon, she is in a position to use her talent to become a star. She also loves him and marries him.
But as Esther's star rises, John Norman's sinks.
Watching Barbra Streisand's A Star is Born -- and why not just call a spade a spade here -- isn't like watching a romance movie, and it isn't like watching a musical movie; in fact, it's not like watching a movie at all. Rather, it's like watching a totem being erected.
Make no mistake: while it's called A Star is Born and has been remade from several other films with that title, this movie could just as easily be called From Here to Eternity or Double Indemnity or Bonnie and Clyde or Steamboat Willie. It matters not what the story is, or the antecedents; the point is to worship at the altar of Streisand, and whether she's playing a character named Esther Hoffman or Fatso Judson is completely beside the point.
The idea of setting an update of A Star is Born in the world of rock music isn't inherently a bad one, but the idea of setting Barbra Streisand in the world of rock music is; Streisand has done many things with her "instrument," but "rock out" is not among them. For pop songs, standards, show tunes, ballads, and the like, you can't touch her, but I don't think of a Streisand concert as a place where people stage dive, dance wildly in the aisles, get stabbed by Hells Angels, or any of those hallmarks of rock.
So cast opposite Streisand, and representing rock, is Kris Kristofferson, a fine singer/songwriter, and an ingratiating presence. Hardly a hard-rock god, Kristofferson at least offered folk-rock cred, though he's not given much to do, musically.
In fact, he's not given much to do, period. While John Norman -- in previous versions, Norman Maine -- is supposed to be a self-destructive drunk on a downward spiral, Kristofferson is more like an affable country cousin with beer and a grin. He doesn't cut an especially tragic figure; if he's suffering deep inner torment, he keeps it really well concealed. While A Star is Born '76 tries so hard to be "modern," it still follows the dictates of the earlier films by giving John Norman a souped-up, self-determined endgame, but since Kristofferson doesn't play John Norman with any particular inner turmoil, it seems like an afterthought; it's a Depression-era conceit shoe-horned into a post-Nixon story, and it just doesn't work.
Streisand's Esther is certain a "modern" woman, and since she's Streisand's Esther, that means she's headstrong, purposeful, and a-brim with wisecracks. She's exhaustingly aggressive, which coupled with her talent makes the notion that she'd need any assistance becoming a "star" just another plot contrivance. Unlike the earlier films, John Norman does little to propel her success other than give her an impromptu spotlight to show her talents to an audience. He doesn't need to school her on how to get ahead, and unlike the Esthers before her, Streisand's Esther doesn't conform by changing her name, appearance, attitude, history, or anything else; she's gotta be she.
Esther purposely does nothing to make herself into a more marketable image. She sports a funky-frumpy wardrobe and a frizzy empowerment 'do that makes her look a bit like Peter Frampton. Apparently, the frizzy 'do was a symbol of strength and freedom in the '70s; a few years later, Jane Fonda would rock the same 'do in the equally risible Coming Home as a way of showing her character's burgeoning hipness.
So empowered is Esther that we lose the great, final moment of the earlier films: Esther appears, post-widowhood, at a concert. The crowd is hushed; cigarette lighters are raise. But she doesn't introduce herself as "Mrs. John Norman Howard" ("Mrs. Norman Maine" in the earlier films); rather, an off-screen announcer introduces her as "Esther Hoffman Howard," which hardly resonates the way the line did in the earlier films. It's also not the end: Esther sings a sappy Paul Williams ballad, "With One More Look at You," and then we get the real raison d'etre for this film: a curtain-closing freeze frame of Esther/Barbra, bathed in red light, arms outstretched like a frizzy-haired Jesus.
There's nothing immediate or authentic about this story. It just clumps along, offering John Norman's aborted concerts, Esther's successes, and endless and tedious love scenes. If there was any chemistry between Streisand and Kristofferson, these might have been tolerable, but they just end up feeling pre-packaged and phony. Fortunately, around two-thirds of the way through, the tedium is leavened by some high camp, as though someone inserted a reel from Valley of the Dolls. If the whole thing were that campy, this would be an easy recommend, but it's just so slow and serious -- and, and 140 minutes, ridiculously long -- that it ends up being a chore to sit through.
Warner Bros. serves up A Star is Born (Blu-ray) with an excellent 1.85:1/1080p transfer that preserves the film's high-gloss look. Whatever its above-the-line weaknesses, the film's tech is terrific, and both the transfer and the DTS-HD surround audio highlight these strengths.
Other than the Digibook, which is filled with lovely photographs, bios, and a bland essay, all the supplements have been ported from an earlier DVD. The most compelling of these is a commentary with Streisand, who shares all sorts of information about the background, creative process, and making of the film. One bit of information Streisand omits, however, is that a gentleman by the name of Frank Pierson directed the film. Pierson, who won an Oscar for writing Dog Day Afternoon, wrote an article entitled "My Battles with Barbra and Jon," detailing his experience making the film; needless to say, it was not a flattering piece. It's an entertaining read, though given Streisand's reputation, I don't know that it's especially enlightening; it's also questionable whether it's really fair or appropriate, given that it was published before the film opened, and that Pierson acknowledges that "clashes happen on all pictures."
Also included in the supplements are deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentary by Streisand, wardrobe tests (Streisand's outfits in the film came from her own closet), and trailers for all three A Star is Born films. What would have been nice would have been an option to skip to the musical numbers, since after all, Streisand's singing is really the whole show here.
It didn't matter what the critics said in '76, and it doesn't matter what I say now. The movie and the soundtrack made buckets of money, and "Evergreen" is one of those tunes that doesn't go away; I'm sure it's still turning up at weddings and other such celebrations.
There are a few moments in the film that work, that don't feel all jerry-rigged and self-conscious. In one, John Norman improvises lyrics to a song Esther wrote; it's a pleasant bit that feels somehow spontaneous, at least comparatively so. And while I can't stand the song, the scene in which the characters record "Evergreen" is charming.
A ginormous vanity project from which no one emerges unscathed save the technicians, A Star is Born is a vehicle for and a Valentine to Streisand. Fans of the singer will likely adore this, but the rest of us...not so much. As for the disc, while the tech upgrade is nice, the lack of new supplemental material makes this a questionable buy.
Guilty. And evergreen.
Review content copyright © 2013 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Czech)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Korean)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Polish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted/Extended Scenes
* Archival Footage