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article imageReview: Coffee table book about Barbra Streisand is compelling Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Apr 20, 2015 in Entertainment
Author and photographer, James Spada has published another book about the superstar Barbra Streisand. What is it about the superstar that so many people find compelling? Even after 50 years since her initial debut, she captivates.
"Streisand In The Camera Eye" published last year is a stunning book for any coffee table. But more importantly for Barbra Streisand fans, it provides a insightful glimpse into one of the most talented celebrities of the 20th Century. When this reporter saw the book displayed on the shelf, naturally I was pulled in. Much has been written and said about Streisand, even her most harshest of critics admit her talent is immense.
Yet, now in her 70's her presence on stage/screen is more legendary than phenomenon. Looking back it is still amazing to fathom that her talent went beyond extraordinary. I say this because it is undeniable. She started on stage, went to Television, movies, then to a recording career and then went behind the camera to direct and produce. Looking at her work, so nicely chronicled in Spada's book, it is a wonder if she had the time for a personal life.
The variation and tapestry of her work stands as a testimony to her superstardom. According to columnist and editor of magazine, Richard Perez-Ferla, Streisand is "the only recording artist in history to have a number one release in six consecutive decades. Streisand is the best-selling female recording artist in history. She is the only woman to make the All-Time Top 10 Best Selling Artists list. And, as Perez-Ferla noted on the Huffington Post back in February, "she also now has the longest span of number one albums in history" (so far.)
It is not clear who was the first-ever superstar. But definitely Streisand is on the roster and it fits. According to Perez-Ferla, she is "the last superstar." He explains, "what makes Streisand the last superstar is that she has outlived the other two supernovas of her generation -- Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor. Only Sinatra, Taylor and Streisand have captivated the world so completely in unprecedented fashion."
As I looked at Spada's book, I could not help but recognize some of the specifics that went into the making of Streisand. Along with her insatiable eagerness to learn and break new ground, I believe Streisand was fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time with the right materials.
The early 1960's was an ideal time for Streisand as an emerging talent. Her ability to experiment and her drive to participate in any venue was perhaps another strength that served her well. I used to hear my parents and others talk about the days when she appeared at the Hungry i and Purple Onion in San Francisco's North Beach. Her ability to entertain a live audience and appear on the big screen was yet another blessing. She was able to encompass that effortlessly. Although in Spada's book, there is mention of her initial fear of appearing on screen. Still, the ability to encompass all media exceedingly well is an accomplishment in and of itself.
What I notice is the fact that her eclectic taste in music and her appreciation for many good things is central to her ability to reach a wide range of audiences. Helpful too was that during the early part of her career there was an older generation that knew and identified with Streisand. This was especially in the role of Fanny Brice. As simple as that may seem it is important not to under estimate that role.
Like Brice, Streisand was unique, one-of-a-kind and versatile. But at the time of Streisand's portrayal of Brice, the audience appreciated the style of music from "Funny Girl." Audiences also could relate to the culture it emerged from. And, unlike other sudden rising stars, known for a particular 'break-out role' audiences were able to envision Streisand beyond Fanny Brice and 'Funny Girl'. Thus rather than becoming type-casted, Streisand was able to use the Fanny Brice story and character as a way to springboard herself much further.
Over the years as she branched out to more complex themes and ideas, even an audience that did not like some of the material she presented, they still followed her. An example of that was when she made "Yentl." I recall back in the 1980's, I read magazine articles that mentioned how Streisand was turned down by movie executives to make the movie. Despite the obstacles she took a risk and made the movie on her own; with herself as director, producer and star.
With so much invested and riding on Streisand's shoulders, "Yentl" could have flopped. The obstacles in making the film might have derailed others. But for Streisand it was a new pathway for her career, not as star or diva but as filmmaker.
Spada mentions that, some critics felt Streisand was too old to play the part of Yentl. Others thought the storyline too complicated and too Jewish. There were moments in the film when I thought the script would introduce mystical concepts along the lines of the Kabbalah. Back in 1983 when I first saw "Yentl" at the Coronet Theater on Geary Blvd in San Francisco it was like nothing I had ever seen before. The deeply expressed point of view Streisand presented made an impact. Yentl also had wonderful music and cinematography to accentuate the story taken from the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
When I asked local chef and restaurateur Ramni Levy what he thought of the film in terms of its highlights of Judaism, "It's really all about Barbra." Levy, when not in the kitchen is very devout and attends synagog services regularly. Levy said that while he appreciated Streisand's artistry in filmmaking, he felt the Judaism she presented was more of her own personal beliefs rather than the religion itself. Even though I did not want to argue with Levy, the son of a rabbi, there are some aspects to "Yentl" that were to me a bit like "Fiddler on the Roof." And in that perhaps, audiences could follow along even if unfamiliar with the more complex aspects of the subject.
Which leads into another aspect of Streisand, her humanity (where she came from, the girl from Brooklyn). For those Streisand fans who want to know all the early life tellings and behind-the-scenes reminiscences of various movies, "Streisand In The Camera Eye" suffices. She is known for her perfectionism and commitment to excellence in every detail. But she also has a very sensitive, vulnerable side which builds a connection to everyday people.
Looking through the retrospective that Spada gives, I can see where TV provided a major platform to promoting her talent. I think that without TV appearances and those spectacular "Barbra specials" she might not have been able reach the heights of stardom so quickly. TV then had a vaudeville-variety show aspect to it. This I think was a great help to Streisand.
TV even then with its limitations, (small screen, limited channels, etc.) was able to reach more people in mass quantities than any show on Broadway or in movie theaters. First of all TV was free. Families watched it together and because Streisand's selection of music appealed to parents and grandparents, children and young people were at ease to watch and be amazed. Some time ago, when I was speaking to Michael Masciolli of All Music Services, he mentioned that time (back in the early '60's) as being formative to Streisand's success.
The now classic TV specials and that duet with Judy Garland, did more than showcase Streisand's talent it matched her with other greats who were firmly etched into the American entertainment landscape. Of course, besides her acting and comedic talent her voice was and is, the key ingredient to her alluring abilities.
Today it is really hard to describe to current generations the impact her talent made upon the public in the 1960s. My actor friend Tim Vigil told me that he remembers back in the early '70s in college at Saint Mary's in Moraga, CA, one of his teachers talking about the rounds of applause, Streisand received at a live performance. "He said, the audience did more than applaud when they saw her. The entire audience would applaud on and on. They would go nuts when she sang People."
"My professor back then at St. Mary's was Brother Matthew Benny, FSC. He saw 'Funny Girl' on Broadway (during its debut run). He told the class that Streisand's voice was amazing and people just were overwhelmed by it."
There have been others with mesmerizing, power-house voices, (Garland among them). Yet, Perhaps it was more than just a coincidence type of serendipity that helped to form the Streisand the world has enjoyed these past 50 years. It seems to me, she had a unique and unusual combination of qualities, talents and circumstance that made her into the superstar.
And, it has been said many times, through interviews, observations by critics, etc, that her singing and vocal abilities are what make audiences experience her beauty. Interestingly, it has been said by ancient sources (Plutarch) that Cleopatra had a voice, "like the instrument of many strings." She was able to speak several languages and took the art of presentation, through make-up, dress, public speaking, etc. as a way to reach many. Scholars have noted that in real life, most likely Cleopatra was petite and had rather plain and ordinary features. But Cleopatra's wit, intelligence, cleverness and her lovely speaking voice captivated Caesar and Marc Anthony.
It is fair to make this comparison/observation about Streisand. Because in some ways, like Cleopatra she is able to captivate and motivate an audience well-beyond what her initial appearance shows. And like the immortal Cleopatra, Streisand's legend continues, ever-growing, moving through time.
"Streisand In The Camera Eye" was published by Abrams. EdgeBostonMediaNetwork notes, one of the reasons why this coffee table book is so substantial is because "having already written three other volumes on Streisand, Spada is an expert historian. He breaks down her career into seven periods in this luxurious, 9 x 11, 288 page hardcover." It can be purchased through Abrams of New York at their website.
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