The publicity release that accompanied this disc said "First time on DVD." What it didn't say was why this 1976 Barbra Streisand film was only now appearing on DVD.
The first time I saw this version of "A Star Is Born," I remember thinking only one thing: It's loud. Now that I've had the chance to watch it again, I got the same impression. Well, at least in the home one gets the chance to modulate the decibel level.
Hollywood filmed the story three times. The original movie appeared in 1937 (loosely inspired by the 1932 film "What Price Hollywood") and starred Janet Gaynor as an actress on her way up in show business and Fredric March as a star on his way down. The first remake appeared in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason. This time, because it was a Garland film, they added some songs. Finally, we got the 1976 rendition reviewed here, starring Ms. Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, which sets the story in the world of pop-rock. Not an improvement, and, as I say, loud.
The plot and characters must have seemed clichéd to audiences seventy years ago, and they haven't improved with age. It's one of those rags-to-riches affairs that are oh-so predictable and at times cringe inducing. Kristofferson's acting and Streisand's singing save the picture, but barely.
The story begins with Kristofferson's character, John Norman Howard, an irresponsible, self-destructive, alcoholic rock star drinking his way down. He doesn't give a damn about his music, his fans, or himself as he orbits out of control to the bottom. Neither his road manager (Gary Busey) nor his producer and best friend (Paul Mazursky) can do anything with him. He misses concerts, forgets lyrics, and falls drunk on stage. He's basically a mess, and his fickle following is fast becoming tired of him.
Then, one night in a small night club he meets a sweet, young singer, Esther Hoffman. She is the usual Barbra Streisand we've come to know and love, a nervous, wide-eyed innocent, as self-absorbed as ever in her opening scene and as klutzy as ever in her initial acquaintance with John Norman. "I'm not used to the rich and famous. It makes me act stupid," she says.
John Norman falls instantly in love with her, although the filmmakers never make the attraction clear; Streisand is lovely, to be sure, but so are thousands of other young women who throw themselves at the singer. Maybe it's because Esther doesn't fall all over him that he's fascinated by her; or maybe it's her voice he goes for. Who knows. In any case, John chases Esther for a time and Esther tries to fend him off, but eventually the two find a mutual love or interest or something and settle down together.
At that point, John becomes more interested in helping Esther's career than his own, and her star rises in direct proportion his falling. It's no wonder Streisand chose to do the film, as it tends to chronicle her own rise to stardom, albeit without the suicidal spouse, and present her as a character who is quite insecure but very good at what she does. Unfortunately, it also tends to be a lot like other Streisand films in that it seems at times like a vanity project, with almost everything about the main character implying, "See how sweet I am, how cute I am, how crazy and nervous and talented I am." I could have done with less of Barbra Streisand and more of Esther Hoffman.
The high points of the film are the concert sequences, which do a good job of capturing not only the music but the spirit and excitement of the moment. At several points in the movie, Ms. Streisand tells us in the accompanying commentary, the filmmakers put on real concerts and asked the star's fans to pony up the expense of ticket buying in order to deliver the kind of authentic audience reaction that extras could not provide. In addition, some of the music and lyrics are appealing, most of it written by Paul Williams, Kenny Ascher, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Kenny Loggins, Donna Weiss, Rupert Holmes, Leon Russell, and Ms. Streisand herself. The song "Evergreen" snagged an Oscar for Best Original Song. I also liked the location shooting around Los Angeles that lends a further note of authenticity to the proceedings. But the best thing about the film is the inclusion of a Ferrari GTS/4 Daytona Spyder, although it distressed me to see what eventually became of it.
What I didn't care for, in addition to Streisand's overplaying the Streisand act, were the film's excessive length (140 minutes); some pretty corny lines ("I can take all the tenderness you've got"); the tearjerker ending; the pedestrian direction of Frank Pierson, whose work before and since has largely been for television; and the sense that we've all seen these characters and their actions before and can foretell every move they're going to make a good hour in advance.
Oh, and there is one more thing I alluded to it earlier that I enjoyed about watching the film at home: The volume control.
I'm going to make a wild guess here and suggest that the DVD transfer probably looks about good as the original print. But understand that the filmmakers intended the photography to look as gritty and realistic as possible, with a good deal of outdoor location shooting. A fairly high bit rate and anamorphic widescreen enhancement produce an image that fills out a 1.78:1 television screen, thus retaining most of the film's 1.85:1 theatrical-release ratio. The opening concert footage is rough, dark, and grainy, but things improve from there. Colors are solid, with good depth, texture, and definition, and black levels are strong. But a slightly coarse look prevails through most of the film.
The audio, conveyed via Dolby Digital 5.1 processing, is very wide across the front channels, with good clarity, decent dynamics, and a reasonably taut mid bass. The deepest bass comes and goes, however, and rear-channel surround is sparse. My only serious quibble is that dialogue can sometimes sound a trifle pinched and dry.
Ms. Streisand's legion of fans will be pleased to know that she provides an audio commentary that is highly personal. As the film's executive producer, it appears from the way she talks that she practically directed it, too. According to her comments, she apparently had a good deal control over what happened in the script, when it happened, where it happened, and how it happened, and she spends a lot of her time in the commentary talking about her color choices in the film. If that's not enough of the star, she also provides commentary on about sixteen minutes of additional scenes, eleven scenes in all, and commentary on about three minutes of wardrobe tests.
The extras wrap up with thirty-nine scene selections but no chapter insert; a gallery of theatrical trailers for all three "A Star Is Born" movies; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
As I've said, the thing the film gets right is the music, although it has tended to date as much as the 1970s' clothing and hair styles, and, besides, it's not enough to carry the whole picture. Ms. Streisand has a great voice and a great stage presence, and she has made a number of good films in her career. For me, "A Star Is Born" is not one of them.