Cinema: Barbra, a One-Woman Hippodrome

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Rock 'n' roll is not the only problem with A Star Is Born, nor even the basic one. Still, it is a fair place to start.

The trouble with rock 'n' roll in A Star Is Born is that there isn't any. The soundtrack is filled with homogenized harmonics passing for rock, but not a single song is good enough even to be counterfeit. There are whimpy ballads and, on occasion, an up-tempo number that might make the Peter Duchin Orchestra restless. No recognizable rock, however, which is a distinct handicap in a movie that deals with two pop superstars who are supposed to be singing it, playing it and living it.

William Wellman's wonderful original A Star Is Born (1937) and George Cukor's superb musical reworking (1954) both shared the same sure-shot story (written originally by Wellman and Robert Carson). Norman Maine, an actor at the apex of stardom and about to slide into an alcoholic decline, meets, loves and marries a young woman named Esther Blodgett, whose fame gradually surpasses his own. Less out of bitterness than from shame, Maine commits suicide by walking into the surf at Malibu.

Now John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion had the clever notion of resetting this story in the rock world, where heady glamour and careening careers furnish the closest contemporary equivalent of the Hollywood flush years. Barbra Streisand and her inamorato Jon Peters weighed into the project as Dunne and Didion drifted away. Batteries of writers and directors were exhausted before the present version was put together under—or perhaps around—Director Frank Pierson (The Looking Glass War). Yet, what the serious quarterlies call "the authorship" of A Star Is Born is unclear. Responsibility must surely rest with Streisand and Peters, who kept hold of the creative clout.

Hostile Audience. Streisand appears as Esther (here surnamed Hoffman), an overnight rock sensation. This is a reckless casting choice. Streisand is a showboater, a sort of one-woman Hippodrome whose roots are in the brassiest tradition of the American musical theater. Hearing her light into a rock song is like listening to Al Jolson sing Leadbelly. In partial anticipation of this problem, Streisand, who gives herself a credit for "Musical Concepts," has laid on a score that is only supposed to give the impression of rock 'n' roll. Instead, it will probably put off her fans and cause undue mirth among audience members who know the difference between Paul Williams and Phil Spector. If Streisand and Peters condescend to the music, they graciously allow rock audiences the chance to cheer for true genius. A concert sequence, where the debuting Barbra brings a hostile rocker audience to their feet with the wonder of her funkiness, is a milestone of piquant absurdity, equivalent, perhaps, to having Kate Smith conquer Woodstock.

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