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A Star is Born (1976) (Digibook) (Blu-ray)
Warner Brothers / 1976 / 139 Minutes / Rated R
Street Date: February 05, 2013
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Reviewed by David Krauss
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Anyone who admires Barbra Streisand and regards her with a shred of objectivity knows the woman has one hell of an ego. A control-freak extraordinaire, Streisand indulges her megalomaniac tendencies in all aspects of her career, yet now that she's past 70 and (rightfully) considered a national treasure, foibles we once found annoying, even infuriating, have become strangely endearing. Though I count myself among the faithful throng that recognizes and appreciates Streisand's supreme talent (okay, I admit it, I'm a fan), there have been countless occasions over the past few decades when I've found her to be personally insufferable. One of the worst instances was back in 1976 when Babs was mounting her misguided, self-indulgent remake of the ultimate Hollywood heartbreak tale, 'A Star Is Born.' Streisand not only starred in the film, but also acted as executive producer, collaborated on its Oscar-winning love theme ('Evergreen'), was responsible for "musical concepts," and, some say, rewrote portions of the script. (The clothes she wore in the movie even came from her own closet!) Most notably, she completely busted the balls of her director, Frank Pierson, reportedly grabbing the reins from him several times during shooting. For Streisand, nothing less than complete creative control (or, more accurately, total, unadulterated control) would be tolerated, and guess what? She got what she wanted.
Yet absolute power corrupts absolutely, or so they say, and the 1976 version of 'A Star Is Born' collapses under the weight of Streisand's overbearing influence and presence. Though a blockbuster hit at the time of its theatrical release, grossing more than any other musical to date, the initial popularity of 'A Star Is Born' can't mask its choppy presentation, cringe-inducing '70s vibe, and militant feminist bias. With her freshly teased afro, wide-collared pants suits, and overly feisty demeanor, Streisand goes on a rampage, tearing up the screen, bulldozing her way through almost every scene, lacking any compassion or sensitivity that would make her character likeable. A glazed Kris Kristofferson (who, like the alcoholic singer he plays, drank his way through filming) stands by her side with an omnipresent shit-eating grin on his face that surely belies his complete and utter disgust with the entire enterprise.
Streisand's 'A Star Is Born' isn't an awful film, but it is an unnecessary one, an often tedious exercise in vanity that paints an unflattering portrait of its leading lady. Harsher elements of Streisand's own personality that heretofore had been hidden from the camera are on full display, blurring the lines between actress and character. Although it's always hard to accept an icon in a fictional role, it's especially difficult to suspend disbelief here, and Streisand doesn't try very hard to help us over the hump. Maybe wearing so many hats behind the scenes and dealing with off-screen issues and a troubled production harm her performance, or maybe she's just playing herself. Either way, Streisand comes across as affected, self-conscious, and annoying.
Of course, Streisand's first mistake was choosing to remake the movie at all. Two prior productions of 'A Star Is Born' already were cinema classics - William Wellman's 1937 straight dramatic version with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and the even more highly regarded 1954 musical adaptation directed by George Cukor and featuring impeccable performances by Judy Garland and James Mason. Both movies beautifully tell the tragic tale of novice performer Esther Blodgett and her rise to prominence under the benevolent tutelage of declining matinee idol Norman Maine, whose alcoholism, ego, and irresponsibility conspire to bring down his lofty career. Their love affair is an oasis of tenderness amid the brutal landscape of industry pressures, public scrutiny, and tawdry excess that defines Tinseltown, yet their abiding affection can't protect them from the insidious outside influences and destructive personal demons assaulting them at every turn. Romantic, emotional, intrinsically realistic, and - in the case of the Garland version - musically thrilling, the story packs quite a wallop.
Streisand's take is none of those things. Garish, overblown, and overlong, the film switches the milieu to the rock music world, chronicling the discovery of pop singer Esther Hoffman (Streisand) by raspy, ruffian rocker John Norman Howard (Kristofferson). Unlike the shy, insecure Esthers of yore, however, this one's got chutzpah to burn, and her brazen confidence, ceaseless drive, and take-no-prisoners attitude rub many people the wrong way (including the audience!). Esther Hoffman doesn't need a Svengali to tutor and mold her; all this tough broad needs is a break! At one point, John Norman tells her, "I gotta teach you everything," which is a load of crap, because the arrogant Esther knows everything already.
Back in the 1930s and 1950s, the idea of a man allowing a woman to act as chief breadwinner was anathema, and when Esther's star eclipses Norman's in the earlier versions after he's let go by his studio, the humiliation of his financial and emotional dependence on his wife accelerates his downward spiral. In the more liberated '70s, such role reversal was (a little) more common, so John Norman must be emasculated in other ways, and Esther herself seems more than willing to tackle the job, outrageously putting makeup on him in the bathtub and later denigrating him, cursing his weakness. In the previous versions, Norman seeks treatment for his alcoholism, then falls off the wagon, heightening the impact of his decline and accenting the hopelessness of his situation, while the Esthers played by Gaynor and Garland decide to chuck their careers to care for their ailing husband to whom they owe everything they hold dear. By contrast, there's no addiction recognition in the me-generation edition of 'A Star Is Born.' Sure, comments are made about John Norman's excessive drinking, but the tortured star never seeks help, and Streisand's self-absorbed Esther makes no sacrificial offer, seems ignorant to the depths of John Norman's pain, and never really expresses gratitude to him for all his help, guidance, and faith. In both earlier films, Esther's selfless attitude and undying commitment to her husband fuel the story's heart-wrenching climax, but here motivations are cloudy and the characters robotically follow a story outline that doesn't necessarily fit the reality of their situations.
In fact, the scenes that work worst in Streisand's 'A Star Is Born' - with the exception of the ludicrous "I love you/I hate you/I love you/I hate you" exchange - are scenes lifted directly from the earlier versions, either because they're outdated (even by 1970s standards) or they don't translate well to the recording industry. Take the awards dinner debacle. In 1954, in one of the film's most stirring sequences, a drunk, unemployed Norman Maine crashes the Academy Awards and hijacks Esther's Best Actress acceptance speech to pathetically plead for a job, accidentally slapping his wife in the process, while in 1976, a drunk John Norman Howard crashes the Grammys and simply makes an ass of himself, rambling about his bad behavior and inciting more ire from Esther. The scene in the remake no longer rings true and loses its substantial sting, as does the scene in which an idle John Norman fields phone calls for a very busy Esther. The entertainment world has significantly evolved since the 1950s, and though the 1976 screenplay smartly adapts to the changes in certain areas, it refuses to break free from the established mold in others, and as a result, pays the price.
On the flip side, the film's best aspect is its music. (It's no wonder the soundtrack album sold a whopping four million copies and topped the Billboard charts for five weeks.) When she sings, Streisand truly shines, performing with power, nuance, and passion, and her numbers achieve a higher degree of impact because all of them were recorded and filmed live. The one-two-three punch of 'Evergreen' (hands down one of the most beautiful love songs ever written), 'Woman in the Moon,' and 'I Believe in Love' is worth the price of admission, and the captivating deliveries almost make us forget the film's inferior nature. Out of her comfort zone in the rock genre, Streisand often looks awkward in the performance scenes - her head bobbing, shoulder shaking, and arm flailing during the final bars of the final number, 'Watch Closely Now,' is downright laughable - but her vocals are peerless, and the tailor-made songs show off her instrument to its best advantage. Kristofferson, on the other hand, croaks his way through a few subpar tunes that make one wonder how John Norman Howard ever became a star in the first place.
It's always tough to evaluate a remake on its own terms, because the temptation to compare it to the original is often irresistible. Streisand's 'A Star Is Born,' however, falls under greater scrutiny, as it must fight the ghosts of two prior, deeply beloved versions. And when matched up against them, it can't compete. The film definitely has its moments, but the bad ones outweigh the good, and in a bizarre twist, because it's mired in a '70s time warp, it feels more dated than its 1954 counterpart. 'A Diva Unleashed' might be a better title for this sporadically entertaining, morbidly fascinating exhibition of ego and self-indulgence that celebrates Streisand's musical artistry while damning the rest of her persona. Memo to Barbra: Sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Barbra Streisand version of 'A Star Is Born' arrives on Blu-ray in much the same fashion as its 1954 predecessor - in a handsomely designed Warner digibook. The 44-page volume is packed with color and black-and-white photos, many of which I hadn't seen before. The text is pretty skimpy and only skims the surface of this troubled production, but topics include the story's background, the film's hit soundtrack, the live concert that was mounted expressly for the movie, and how the picture was promoted. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Just like the movie itself, Warner's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of 'A Star Is Born' is a mixed bag. Most of it, though, is quite good, featuring well-balanced contrast, a fine, non-intrusive grain structure, good clarity, and a natural color palette. I remember previous home video versions of this film looking washed out and dull, but thanks to a pristine source print with no nicks, marks, or scratches and excellent color timing that boosts detail resolution and overall vibrancy, Warner's Blu-ray treatment breathes new life into this 37-year-old movie.
The only problem is consistency. Some shots are just a tad soft, while others look slightly faded. The differences aren't jarring, but they're noticeable enough to merit mention, and keep this transfer from scaling the heights of which it is capable. Black levels are solid, and night scenes exhibit an appropriate amount of detail, while whites remain crisp throughout. Streisand wears several white outfits, but the various fabrics and stitching are always well defined. Primaries come at a premium (John Norman's beautifully saturated red sports car is a good example), as earthy desert tones predominate, but the hues blend well together (Streisand is fastidious about color coordination) and create a warm, comfortable mood. Fleshtones are stable and true, and though there aren't many extreme close-ups, the medium close shots of Kristofferson emphasize his toothy grin, windblown hair, and trademark beard.
Crush, banding, noise, and edge enhancement are non-issues, making this transfer very palatable for the film's fans. Surely 'A Star Is Born' has never looked better, and those that enjoy this romantic musical will find much to crow about.
Musically, 'A Star Is Born' sounds great. The newly remastered DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track shows off the songs to their best advantage with clear, bright, well-modulated tones, superior fidelity, and palpable depth and presence. The mix, however, favors the music at every turn, and during certain scenes when key dramatic elements are also in play, that's a mistake. Dialogue is often incomprehensible early in the film, especially during the coffeehouse sequence when Esther struggles to get through her solo number while John Norman at first converses with an annoying waitress and then engages in an altercation with an obnoxious fan. Here, the bickering should take precedence, as it disrupts Esther's performance and drives the plot forward, but the mix highlights Streisand's vocals, which almost completely drown out the conversations, forcing us to strain to pick out isolated words. The dialogue is also tough to hear during John Norman's opening number, but thankfully, as the film progresses, this issue gets ironed out and verbal exchanges become better prioritized.
Most of the audio is anchored up front, but the surrounds kick in nicely during the songs, and really make a statement at the outdoor concert, with a helicopter, motorcycle, thousands of screaming fans, on-stage bedlam, and a driving rock beat offering plenty of rear channel activity. Stereo separation is also strong during the musical sequences, allowing various instruments to shine and providing a more immersive concert experience.
A wide dynamic scale handles all the track throws at it without any distortion or break-up, even at high volume levels. Streisand's soaring high notes on 'Woman in the Moon' and 'I Believe in Love' are crystal clear and exude a marvelous purity, and her sublime singing of the timeless 'Evergreen' sounds deliciously lush. Solid bass frequencies provide essential, counterbalancing weight, as well as heavy rumbles when John Norman guns his engine during his final, fateful drive. Accents, such as clicking cameras, are crisp and distinct, and gentle nuances are easy to detect in quieter bits of scoring.
Were it not for the incredibly annoying and frustrating dialogue issues early in the film, this track would earn high marks, but such problems could not be overlooked. Once you get past the first 20 minutes, however, it's pretty smooth sailing and 'A Star Is Born,' at least from an audio perspective, realizes its potential.
All the extras from the 2005 DVD release have been ported over to this Blu-ray edition. It's a decent array of supplements, but nothing spectacular. A no-holds-barred retrospective documentary would really add a lot to the package - and might just set the record straight on a number of thorny issues - but so far no such project is in the offing.
- Audio Commentary – The lady herself, Barbra Streisand, sits down for a rare yet not so revealing commentary. Don't get me wrong; the legendary star is thoughtful, articulate, and insightful as she addresses many aspects of the production and her involvement in it, but never does she divulge any details about the rampant tension on the set or the artistic differences that alienated her from "director" Frank Pierson. (She does, however, make one telling remark, stating she and Pierson agreed the film's direction would be a collaborative effort, even though he would receive sole screen credit.) In fact, rarely does Streisand even mention Pierson, and her tone and speech patterns suggest she is solely responsible for most of the film's technical and artistic choices. One might assume, because of her heritage, Streisand possesses the gift of gab, but that's not really the case here. Lengthy gaps pervade this track, but when Streisand does speak, her comments are always interesting, even when the topics are frivolous. (Too many observations about her wardrobe clutter the conversation, and at least twice she compliments Kristofferson on his "great teeth.") Streisand admits she "adored" the Garland version of 'A Star Is Born' and only consented to do the updated remake because her romantic partner at the time, Jon Peters, wanted to become a producer. She also talks about the culture of celebrity and price of fame, how she initially approached Elvis Presley to play John Norman, her distaste for lip-syncing to pre-recorded tracks (all the songs in the picture were recorded live), and how winning the Oscar for Best Song (for 'Evergreen') was perhaps the biggest thrill of her career. She notes many of the scenes between Esther and John Norman grew out of her own relationship with Peters, points out where mistakes occur in the movie, and surprisingly confesses she embraces human frailties, at least on film - quite an admission from someone generally regarded as the quintessential perfectionist. Though not the ideal commentary, this is nevertheless a good effort, and it's a treat to hear such a lengthy monologue from the usually circumspect Streisand.
- Wardrobe Tests (SD, 3 minutes) – A collection of silent tests of several costumes worn by Streisand, Kristofferson, and The Oreos, some of which were used in the film and some of which weren't. Streisand provides running commentary, remarking on her "cute" short hair and her weight at the time (119 lbs.), and shares her opinion on the merits of the various outfits. She also recalls her first meeting with Kristofferson and expresses fondness for the job of film executive.
- Deleted Scenes/Alternate Takes (with optional commentary) (SD, 17 minutes) – A dozen excised and alternate scenes, almost all of which were wisely abandoned, show how many superfluous sequences were originally shot. A ridiculous scene of Streisand trying her hand (unsuccessfully) at cooking is painful to watch, while a raw reading of 'Evergreen' with nonsense syllables instead of lyrics is simply interminable. The infamous bathtub scene goes a step further here, and a portion of the final number is included with cuts and different camera angles instead of the one-take version used in the final edit. Streisand rues some of the deletions because she likes the material, and discusses the editing process as if she was the film's director. She also describes the motivation behind the bathtub makeup scene and admits she prefers the climactic performance of 'Watch Closely Now' with multiple angles.
- 'A Star Is Born' Trailer Gallery (SD, 11 minutes) – Previews for the original 1937 straight-dramatic version of 'A Star Is Born,' featuring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, as well as the highly acclaimed 1954 musical remake, starring Judy Garland and James Mason, are included here, along with the original theatrical trailer for the Streisand-Kristofferson edition. It's interesting to watch the evolution of style, storytelling, and social mores through these previews, which span four decades of history.
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I used to loathe Barbra Streisand's version of 'A Star Is Born,' but the passage of time has somewhat softened my opinion of this inferior rock-'n'-roll update of the classic Hollywood tale. Though it pales in comparison to Judy Garland's magnificent effort, Streisand's take contains stellar vocal performances by the diva that often transcend the aura of ego, lack of subtlety, and agenda-driven tone that pervade this uneven film. Call it a train wreck, call it a guilty pleasure, call it a self-indulgent mess, but Streisand's 'A Star Is Born' will continue to polarize casual viewers and diehard fans for years to come. Warner's digibook presentation is classier than the movie itself, and features an excellent video transfer, somewhat problematic audio, and a decent array of supplements. If you love the earlier versions of this story, you'll definitely be disappointed with this crass remake, and if you've never seen 'A Star Is Born,' for heaven's sake don't start here. I love you, Barbra, but aside from a few powerful moments, this is far from your finest hour, which makes this release definitely for fans only.
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