By Chaz Lipp
As a relic from a different age, A Star is Born is essential a vanity project starring one of the most popular divas in music and film history, Barbra Streisand. The movie exists primarily as a monument to her legendary status as a singer, performer, and actress. While not really suited to my particular taste, I would never try to argue that Ms. Streisand is not exceptionally talented in those fields. Where I take issue with Star is the idea of Babs as a young, irresistibly sexy starlet whose MOR pop is embraced by crowds at rock concerts.
Luckily director Frank Pierson had Kris Kristofferson on hand as the male lead, absolutely believable as the devil-may-care, self-destructive, over-indulgent rock star, John Norman Howard. Too bad Kristofferson didn’t get to write the songs he performs in the film, which are depressingly generic ‘70s stadium rock. What’s cool is how Pierson captures the vibe of a concert so authentically. The opening sequence feels like a genuine rock show. Kristofferson makes Howard seem real too.
Then he meets Esther Hoffman (Streisand) and credibility goes out the window. Actually, there’s amusement to be had watching Esther front a girl group called The Oreos (so named due to her backup singers, Venetta Fields and Clydie King, being black). Howard’s being harassed by a young Freddy Krueger (well, not really—but it is an uncredited Robert Englund) and generally making an ass out of himself while The Oreos perform. Their act consists of goofy, loungy songs that we can’t believe Howard would really dig. So it must be a case of animal attraction that draws him to Esther. But I mean, come on. This is a famous, adored rock star—he can pick up anyone. Why this particular thirtysomething with a perm that didn’t look good even in 1976?
Enough about the setup, the rest of the movie tracks the brief flash of passion between them, followed by a slow, steady, unpleasant decline. Howard introduces his discovery to his own audience after becoming bored by singing the same old songs. Despite the crowd being there for crunchy, hard-driving rock, they lap up the light pop Esther begins belting out. She becomes an overnight success while he hits the skids, his career flaming out. Again, Kristofferson turns in some eminently likeable work, even when he’s behaving like an insufferable jerk (such as his embarrassing, drunken upstaging of Esther at the Grammys). Unless you’re already enamored by Streisand, you might not blame Howard for indulging in drink and coke so heavily.
Like the infinitely superior New York, New York the following year (Martin Scorsese’s most underrated film), A Star is Born is about the romantic incompatibility of two creative, successful, artistic types. Specifically, it’s about the problems that arise when the female half of the couple winds up being more successful than the male half. That could’ve been affecting had it been a character study (like Scorsese’s film), with all the insight and rich details such a story needs in order to draw the audience in. But Star is hard to relate to and its characters difficult to sympathize with (no matter how fun hanging out with John Norman Howard might be).
What is easy to love is Warner’s 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer of Robert Surtees cinematography. This is a very clean presentation that retains all the grain that a film of this era should have. Inherent in the photography is a lot of soft-focus material, so detail is often compromised. That’s not reflective of the transfer itself, of course, which seems to offer an accurate representation of the film’s original look. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is perhaps a little flat by today’s standards, though the music sounds good. Depending on how many people are talking at once, some of the dialogue can be easy to miss. Overall there’s little to complain about here.
Carried over from a previous DVD edition, the supplemental features include a Streisand commentary track that is pretty informative, though prone to long pauses later in the film. There are also deleted scenes (in super rough, standard-def quality) with optional Streisand commentary. There’s also footage of wardrobe tests. Warner put together one of their digibook cases for this release. If you’ve seen these before, you know what to expect—about 40 pages of photographs and a few short essays on the production.
At two hours and 20 minutes, A Star is Born is overlong. It’s no spoiler to reference the extended performance sequence that concludes the film. Suffice it to say that Streisand seems determined to make it mean something. We see Esther get super emotional as she commands everyone’s attention, but it doesn’t add up to anything more than a superstar shining a very bright spotlight on herself.