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RUNNING TIME: 140 min.
• Commentary by Barbra Streisand
• Additional Scenes
• Wardrobe Tests
• Trailer gallery
Being rich and famous sucks. Just say no.
Barbra Streisand (What’s Up, Doc?), Kris Kristofferson (Flashpoint), Gary Busey (The Gumball Rally), Sally Kirkland (Best of the Best), Paul Mazursky (Into the Night), Robert Englund (V: The Final Battle)
Esther (Streisand) is a folk singer on her way up. John Norman Howard (Kristofferson) is a pop star on his way down. They fall in love and build a weird house in the desert all by themselves. But each one of her successes makes him more and more of a failure in the public eye…
"Are these the auditions for Godspell?"
They say God created the music business just to make the movie business look good. This is the third official version of A Star Is Born (Psst– the 1937 version remains far and away the best): it retains only a handful of scenes and character names, and it shifts the backdrop from the silver screen to the concert arena. From the start, I count that a loss—movies about the movies possess a resonance very different from movies about other art forms.
In this film’s defense, there wasn’t much Classic Hollywood production going on in 1976, and the old studios’ star system was all but dead, so shifting the focus to rock stars makes a certain amount of sense. The movie was financed and released through First Artists, a consortium of independent actor-producers (including Streisand, Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier) who had opted to look outside the big studios for projects that suited them. Barbra’s interest here seems to have been less with the industry aspects of the story and more with the legacy of her inspiration, Judy Garland, who starred in the 1954 film.
This might explain why the music is all over the map—our heroine is really an interpretive artist, not a composer. We get R&B, prog-rock, disco ballads, even some kind of Joan Baez-type protest song. John Norman and Esther are both supposedly singer-songwriters, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to them—there’s nothing in either of their repertoires to suggest a personal style or vision, and it dampens the potentially dramatic moment when Esther takes one of John Norman’s numbers and makes it her own.
"That’s some case of the munchies, Kris."
The movie’s early scenes serve up a vivid and believably wild portrait of the ‘70s concert scene. There’s a casual quality to the sex and drug use but it’s the language that stands out most as a sign of the times: in a liberated, studio-free exploration of the ‘R’ rating, the actors use the word ‘fuck’ exclusively as a verb, much unlike its current status as a noun/adjective/interjection hybrid.
Cinematographer Robert Surtees brings a luster to the seediness on display, and makes sure there’s always a backlight on Barbra’s perm. However, like most showbiz dramas, there’s a noticeable loss of energy in the second half, once success catches up with our heroine and it gets lonely at the top. The film operates on the assumption that we’ll fall in love with Esther because she’s Barbra Streisand. For some fans, that may be enough.
Kristofferson has the thankless job of portraying the weaker half of the couple. We never see John Norman at the height of his powers—he’s already a wreck in the very first scene. Esther’s selfless devotion to a guy who’s becoming a drag on her career is at the heart of the original story, but the film wants to have it both ways, giving us a liberated, Modern Woman who doesn’t define herself according to her man. And so, the original’s classic line, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is… Mrs Norman Maine!” is simply eliminated, with nothing to take its place.
SCTV did a long-form parody of this movie once, and what’s odd is that twenty years later I remember the tunes from that version better than the ones I just heard here. The majority of these songs were co-written by Paul Williams: for CHUD purposes I must point out that he was working on Bugsy Malone at about the same time, and that this project came somewhere between Phantom of the Paradise and The Muppet Movie, all excellent scores and no shit about that. But when the best song in your film is written by Kenny Loggins something is very very wrong.
There’ll always be an Englund.
Streisand contributes an intermittent feature commentary (an off-mike interviewer appears to have been edited out) and also talks over some of the deleted scenes. She’s quite good on the technical details, which reflects the true extent of her work producing the film.
Did I mention Robert Surtees? Flawless video transfer here, the better to contemplate Kristofferson’s invisible eyebrows. The audio is remastered 5.1 and aggressive with it: voices are occasionally backed up by the rear channel. I’ve said this before, but I really wish DVDs would carry supplemental credits for this kind of work. Given Streisand’s involvement in the disc, I’m curious to know if she contributed to the remix herself.