Blu-ray Review: A Star Is Born (1976)

In Blu-Ray’s by Rebecca WrightLeave a Comment

The third remake of the 1932 drama What Price Hollywood?, this adaptation of A Star Is Born sets the scene in the world of 1970’s rock. Originally envisioned by screenwriters John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion as a hard look at the music industry with then-couple James Taylor and Carly Simon as the leads, things changed when they dropped out and Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser/boyfriend, Jon Peters saw a copy of the script and convinced Streisand do the picture. With Peters ensconced as producer, Streisand had the ultimate vanity picture. Even if though the story has some serious flaws, nearly all is forgiven every time she opens her mouth to sing.

John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson) is a hard-drinking, hard-partying, rock star whose been burning the candle at both ends for many years. His unpredictable behavior has record buyers and business associates and friends at the end of their rope. Disapproving of fans who want to hear his old hit, Howard shows up at concerts hours late, drunk and unable to remember his lyrics. Escaping from another disastrous concert, John ends up at a dive bar, where he tries to listen to Esther Hoffman (Streisand), the lead singer of a female trio. Naturally, his obnoxious behavior leads to a nasty bar-wide brawl. Taking pity on John, Esther leads him away from the chaos. She allows him to take her home. He’s surprised when she doesn’t allow him in. Instead, she invites him back for breakfast the next morning. Besotted, John comes back the next day and takes her via helicopter to the site of his huge outdoor concert.

A Star Is Born (76)Once on the stage, John is a drunk mess, letting his focus wander to a need to put the non-existent spotlight (it’s daytime!) on Esther. The concert turns into utter chaos when John borrows a fan’s motorcycle and crashes it off the stage, into the audience. In the ensuing commotion, Esther is left behind at the concert site. Several days later, after unsuccessfully trying to contact Esther, John runs into her at a recording studio. This time, Esther is easily persuaded to go with John to his home. After improvising a song together, the two make love and their bond is set. Soon enough, John is determined to make Esther a star, even as his own music career is dying. After Esther records a series of songs with John’s band, he pushes her onstage to sing at a benefit he’s supposed to perform at. Esther is a huge hit and becomes an overnight sensation. With her career on the rise, Esther convinces John to marry her.

The newlyweds, happily ensconced at John’s secluded Arizona ranch, are interrupted when the reality of Esther’s fame comes calling. Managers, photographers and the rest descend on them as its time for Esther’s first tour to take off. Dissuaded by his manager from going on tour with Esther as part of a co-bill, John realizes that his inability to conquer his demons is affecting Esther’s chances of being happy. As Esther tours, John tries to work on songs back in Los Angeles, but comes up empty. Even his old band has gone on without him, placing their own hit on the charts. When John humiliates himself and Esther at the Grammy’s during her acceptance speech, he is in a full tilt downward spiral. Even as John’s troubles mount and Ester’s success increases, she hangs on; giving up on John, only to beg him to fight for her seconds later.

The biggest problem with this version of A Star Is Born is that while Kris Kristofferson is totally believable in his role (I don’t think he was up nights studying for the role), Barbra Streisand isn’t, really. We’re supposed to believe that Esther is young woman, working dive bars and trying to make it as a singer. In truth, she never lets us forget she’s Streisand. The first time we see her, she supposed to be working a little club. However, what’s she’s doing looks more like a Las Vegas act. Flanked by two black backup singers known as the Oreos, she has no nerves and moves like she’s been performing in public for years. While they sing well, in the real world, an act with the kind of material she giving this dive bar audience would be thrown out on its ear.

While Kristofferson isn’t afraid to look the part of a fading star, Streisand seems unwilling to truly pretend she was ever less than anything than the mega-star she is. Instead of ever truly embracing the character of Esther Hoffman, Streisand simply plays a low-key version of herself at the start. Esther Hoffman as an individual character is never really flushed out. Kristofferson, who knows the ins-and-outs of the music industry, excels in the scenes showing John’s downfall: his drinking, the drug use on tour, the groupies, all seems close to the truth.

As John’s life and career sort of fade into the background, Streisand goes into full superstar mode. Nearly every song she sings is a brilliant powerhouse ballad. The finale, in which she sings for a full eight minutes, is a true showstopper. Yes, her character of Esther Hoffman is never developed well, but Streisand is here and ready to sing her heart out. Honestly, Babs’ performances of “Evergreen,” “Lost Inside of You,” “With One More Look at You/Watch Closely Now” and others, are reason enough for loyal Barbra Streisand fans to add this Blu-ray to their collections.

Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Warner Brothers has provided a more than respectable 1080p transfer. Sharpness is fairly consistent throughout, with just the occasional shot appearing a bit soft during close-ups. While a speck or two popped up on occasion, the print is remarkably free of digital issues and no edge enhancement is used. Colors are rich and distinct across the palette, with no bleeding or fading issues. Shadow detail is quite impressive. While a couple of darker shots could be a bit dense, that’s a very mild distraction. All in all, this is a fine transfer.

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track is a bit of a mixed bag. While the songs come across elegantly, well balanced and boast some strong dynamics, dialogue sounds a bit distant and weak.  In the quieter scenes, it’s a bit tough to hear what the actors are saying. This appears to be more a problem with the mix then with the original source. What effects there are is generally presented in the center channel, though concert crowd noise often spread to the rear. The real highlight of this mix is the songs, which sound strong and well balanced.

English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German SDH, Italian SDH, Czech, Korean and Polish subtitles are available.

The following special features are included:

  • Audio Commentary by Actor/Producer Barbra Streisand: For the most part, Streisand keeps the focus on herself here, discussing her wardrobe, how she came to be involved with the project, etc. She does offer some nice anecdotes about how Elvis Presley nearly played the John Norman Howard role and some other behind-the-scenes information. However, when she starts talking about the travails of fame, she does get a bit annoying. For fans, this one is definitely worth a perusal.
  • Wardrobe Tests (SD, 3:12) Streisand narrates this footage as she lets us in on what we’re seeing in this otherwise silent footage. Apparently, Streisand’s wardrobe came largely from her own closet.
  • Deleted Scenes (SD, 16:44) Eleven in all, most of these scenes flesh out more of the hot/cold/obsessive? Nature of the John and Esther relationship. Available with optional commentary from Streisand, she explains why each scene was ultimately cut.
  • Trailers: For the 1937, 1954 and 1976 versions of the film.
  • DigiBook: The Blu-ray comes encased in a photo filled book that includes background on the film and information on the cast and crew.