Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review - A Star Is Born (1976)

December 26, 2013

A Star Is Born – US, 1976

My father has a theory that goes something like this. A Star Is Born, with its elements of fairy tale and tragedy, is timeless, for in every generation, there are talented individuals waiting to be discovered and veterans whose spotlights will soon begin to fade. This is especially true of actors, who it is sometimes said are a flop away from obscurity and a hit away from fame and fortune. Therefore, the theory is that every generation can have its own version of A Star Is Born. Not every generation has, yet the film has been made three times, and there are rumors that Clint Eastwood is going to direct its fourth incarnation. There have also been numerous films which have obviously been inspired by A Star Is Born, such as 2011‘s Oscar winner, The Artist.

The essentials of an A Star Is Born film are rather simple: An aging celebrity whose career is at a crossroads meets a young woman and is so impressed by her talent that he decides to help her achieve her dreams. Love blooms, of course, yet as her career blossoms, his wanes, and the two of them somehow deal with the role reversal and its unnerving aftermath. The first two incarnations of A Star Is Born told the story from the perspective of actors; the third has as its central characters singers from the 1970s, which immediately puts the film at a disadvantage. After all, music, much more than film, ages, audiences’ tastes change, and what once sounded hip and meaningful may one day seem dated and cliché.

In this version, the aging veteran is John Norman Howard, played by Kris Kristofferson. Howard, much like The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, is the lead singer of a psychedelic rock band whose songs have the reputation of being about something much more meaningful than the average song on the week’s Top Ten chart, and perhaps this is why his fans seem willing to wait for two and a half hours for the show to begin. He is also a man who has become his own worst enemy – He is reckless on stage, forgets lyrics, and has an odd habit of insulting his audience. He also has a pre-show ritual that includes two snorts of cocaine and a long sip of hard liquor. The young woman who temporarily changes his life is Esther Hoffman, played by Barbra Streisand. Esther is a “lounge” singer with great talent but very little in the way of notoriety, and she sings songs designed to hammer home messages of female empowerment and equality of the sexes. One evening after one of his disastrous shows, Howard goes into her club looking for a good time and takes an instant liking to her, although it is hard to say whether it is her looks or her singing that is the greater impetus.

The two of them soon engage in a rather awkward dance of one step forward, two steps back, for with each moment that brings them closer, there are at least two that serve to remind them just how much of a mess John is and just how wise it would be for Esther to steer clear of him. Yet he is a celebrity, and celebrities have an allure to them that is hard to shake. It should also be said that fame is what Esther is after. What finally cements their partnership is a magical moment at the piano – she plays a song that has been running around in her head (she describes it as a baby that she hopes will grow into an aria) and he comes up with lyrics for it on the spot. The scene is sweet, and Esther’s reaction shows how much of an attachment she has suddenly formed with him. This leads, of course, to their first romantic encounter, which, like many before it, involves the two of them surrounded by more candles than I can imagine a man like John Howard having let along taking the time to place so lovingly around his bathtub.

The film is the least popular version of the A Star Is Born films, and it is not hard to see why this impression exists. The film is somewhat awkwardly paced, surprisingly uninvolving, and its script too often includes moments that stain credibility. The most glaringly peculiar of these scenes is also one of the film’s most essential, for it is the scene that launches Esther’s music career. Now most moviegoers can think of roles in films that made a certain actor or actress a household name overnight, but how many people can think of a virtually unknown singer who became famous after performing unannounced as a benefit concert? Ever more puzzling is the reaction of the audience. Treated to 70’s pop instead of 70’s rock, they burst into the kind of rapturous applause that one normally associates with an unforgettable rendition of a group’s biggest hit, not a song they’re hearing unexpectedly for the first time.

To make Esther’s sudden rise believable, there should be more scenes devoted to showing her doing small shows, doing interviews, and recording songs. We should see evidence of her songs moving up the charts and witness her going from packed small clubs to large sold-out stadiums. This could have easily been accomplished by including a short montage, a kind of greatest hits of the following year, if you will. However, the film unwisely shifts to the deserts of Arizona, where the now happily-married couple first construct a home in the middle of nowhere and then spend all their time riding horses, having fun, and lying in each other’s arms. All the while, she is somehow becoming one of the biggest singers on the planet. I just didn’t buy it.

The film’s other problem is its insistence of sticking too closely to the A Star Is Born script. At times, it is as if the screenwriter had a checklist and just went scene by scene checking off key moments from the earlier films. Esther pleading with someone to help John’s jumpstart his career? Check. The award ceremony mishap? Check. Esther expressing her frustrating with what John has become? Check. The use of John’s name to signify acceptance and strength? Check. Right down to the film’s tragic finale. It is all predictably there.

And what’s new in the film is neither timeless not audience-friendly. This is a drug-filled, sexed-up A Star Is Born, for the film includes sexually-charged lyrics, depicts attempted infidelity as a form of marriage therapy, and has a pivotal scene that endorses one of the most dated ideas of manhood that I’ve seen in some time. In other words, this is not Judy Garland’s A Star Is Born, and it is not likely to appeal to as many people. I felt strangely apathetic to the film – I neither loved it nor hated it. This reaction is partly due to my familiarity and esteem for the two previous versions of the film, yet I must admit that it is also due to the characters, as well as their relationship, being less authentic and to the story feeling dated for the first time. In adding to it, they gave the film an expiration date, and, despite the performances of its cast and the film’s often involving musical numbers, the film now feels well past its prime. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

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