For someone who likes to give the impression of being a perfectionist, Barbra Streisand has created an extraordinary level of wildly imperfect work. A fascinating case in point is her 1973 television special “Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments,” which is a semi-debacle that only Streisand could whip up: a clever concept overinflated into a lumpy, pushy, demanding self-tribute to a genuine talent who nonetheless isolates her audience by constantly confusing megalomania with creativity.
“Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments” was the Brooklyn diva’s return to TV after an absence of five years. She certainly did not need TV, as her film and recording career reached dizzying heights after her last small-screen foray in 1968 (a surprisingly simple yet effective videotaped Central Park concert). Keeping her preference for a one-woman show, Streisand put herself at the center of a frenzy with extravagant yet off-kilter music numbers that strangely highlighted her inadequacies as a performer rather than confirm her gifts.
Streisand kicks things off with a hi-fi medley of “Sing” and “Make Your Own Kind of Music” accompanied by a full orchestra. Her booming voice and melodramatic style steamrolls both songs, particularly the charming “Sing” (Karen Carpenter probably grabbed a cheeseburger in disgust after hearing Streisand wreck that tune).
She then launches into a weird world music tour which involves a number of songs (both standards like “I Got Rhythm” and her “Funny Girl” classics) reconfigured to meet the styles of the international musicians. If the idea of having “People” played like a Turkish bellydance or “Don’t Rain on My Parade” pounded out by American Indian drummers isn’t crazy enough, Streisand gets into a variety of exotic costumes and proceeds to dance about as if she was a Third World child. Or at least I think she wants to give the impression she’s dancing â€“ it looks more like Babs doing jumping jacks dressed as a Masai warrior or doing drag queen catwalk vamping as an East Indian goddess.
Things get even stranger when she seats herself alone amidst 1973-style computers. Her solo numbers “Don’t Ever Leave Me” and “By Myself” may have been intended to show the dehumanizing effects of computer technology (complete with metallic, unworldly computerized music), but the production is so heavy-handed that even the star’s most devoted fans would want to throw a theremin at her.
Humanity sort of returns when Ray Charles (of all people) shows up at a piano. Streisand and Charles don’t seem like a logical pairing, and their collaboration never quite clicks (the Raettes keep a wise distance from the mismatched duo). In fact, Charles appears to be somewhat annoyed by the whole proceedings, which is no surprise since their three-song/10-minute set actually took 13 hours to shoot (with Streisand reportedly demanding multiple takes of each camera set-up).
After a truly dumb jokey interlude with a German-language song (complete with a follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along on the screen, in German), the show finally gets its priorities right. Streisand jettisons the shtick and the star attitude and launches into a pair of completely perfect numbers: “I Never Has Seen Snow” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” For the first time in the production, she nails the music with a completely focused display of vocal power and uncluttered charisma. If there is any reason to sit through this mess, it is for these two song stylings.
Alas, bad habits return for the finale “The Concerto for Voice and Appliances,” in which household items including orange juicers, telephones, doorbells and Singer sewing machines (Singer was the sponsor of this show) were incorporated into an original yet egregious mix of symphonic blasts and industrial sounds.
“Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments” took 11 weeks to shoot, which is uncommonly long for a one-hour special (a feature movie usually takes that length of time). The production took place in at Elstree Studios in London, which helped keep costs down, and while Dwight Hemion was credited as the director it seemed fairly obvious who was calling the endless shots.
The program aired on CBS on November 2, 1973, and was greeted by scathing critical catcalls and very low ratings; a companion soundtrack album was among her least successful records. Considering Streisand was riding high weeks earlier with the release of “The Way We Were” in theaters, the rejection from the program was an ego-blow. In fact, Streisand would not do another TV special for 13 years.
To date, “Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments” was never released for home entertainment viewing. Bootleg copies have been circulating for some time among Streisand worshipers, but the quality of these dupes ranges from poor to horrible. Rumors of an official commercial DVD release have been floating for a while, but it has yet to happen.
Truthfully, this production is only for those who think Barbra Streisand is a deity. For the rest of us, it is a happy turn of affairs that “Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments” is not assaulting our eyes and ears. Because on a clear day, you can smell this one coming a mile away!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on June 3, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
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