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Barbra Streisand – The Television Specials (A Music Video Review)

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

Barbra Streisand - The Television Specials

Barbra Streisand – The Television Specials

Barbra Streisand

The Television Specials (Rhino-2005)

Your patience with this DVD depends on your Babs tolerance level. However, truth be told, this collection is, well, fabulous. Even if you are not a fan, the music and the voice is so dazzling that, even if you don’t convert, you’ll at the very least question your sexuality.

Here are five TV specials that, if you let them wash over you, will drown you with an odd, unusual pleasure. Short on guest stars and deliberately foregoing the cutesy sketches (for the most part), we instead get pure voice and intense orchestration – for sure, entertainment on an adult level.

It’s sophisticated, yes, and difficult to peg. This unique woman — all fingernails and eyelashes — is not exactly timeless throughout these gems, but we don’t feel as if we’ve suffered through a tiresome, claustrophobic time capsule either. It all holds up.

When Streisand first took the entertainment world by storm in the early sixties, she was nothing short of a stunning revelation. Her story would never be believable as fiction. Here was a Brooklyn Jewish girl with offbeat looks (to say the least), who had a voice on her that was immediately nothing short of a force. From the get go, she would not allow any contemporaries. She copied no one and nobody could hold a candle to her. To boot, she was bohemian, kooky, unable to relate to people and often awkward in front of the camera. Yet the stars were aligned in the sky for her, and she somehow made everything wrong right.

What saved her from late-night-freak-show obscurity was that voice, so legitimate and unique, backed up with that compellingly distinctive presence. While singing, her awkwardness melted away quickly, and her odd looks became intriguing and beautiful. When she sang, she was simply transported somewhere far away from wherever. Audiences didn’t know where she was going, but they came along with her, in growing numbers.

She wasn’t just another cabaret singer from the Village. Nor was she a nightclub babe, nor was she a groovy, Burt-Bacharach-lovin’ pop artist. She wasn’t exactly retro and she certainly wasn’t cutting edge, or in any real way modern. Figuring out just what she was – and the exasperation in doing so – only increased her popularity, in an age in which “doin’ your own thing” was not just finally acceptable but quickly encouraged. After her arrival, the mold was broken.

She became a star first on Broadway, in Funny Girl. This was the story of comedian Fanny Brice, but that fooled nobody. This was Streisand’s show, and it was, on the surface, practically her story (Misunderstood Ugly Duckling Makes Good).

An enthused CBS signed her to a television special, pretentiously called My Name Is Barbra. In the age of The Beatles, this blew audiences away, in its bigger-than-life simplicity (just Streisand and her voice). She looked like a drag queen doing a lame imitation of herself; between songs, she would occasionally ramble on about nothing to increase your marveling (a voice like that came out of this kook?).

A girl like this in a world of WASPy young pretties was something to see. When appearing in her scruffy clothes (scruffy for 1965 but not now), she semi-apologized to her audience, “I walked out like this and nobody stopped me, and I should have been stopped.” That she offered up her shabby-chic wardrobe to an audience used to their TV women vacuuming while wearing pearls, it was stunning. As well, that a woman – in her early twenties, yet – demanded total creative control before she was even a proven draw on television – was unheard of.

Of course, you know the rest. It all paid off, in spades. My Name Is Barbra had intensely high ratings and was universally praised and honored. A year later, this lead to another special – in color – with the equally pretentious title of Color Me Barbra. Here she sings songs you’ve never heard before like you’ve never heard them before. This list includes everything from “The Minute Waltz” to modern go-go, all the while rambling on about her love for animals (beneath false eyelashes) and singing “We’ve Got A Lot In Common” to an anteater and “What’s New, Pussycat” to a kitten. One of the few letdowns is technical: Streisand, from time to time, lip-synchs!

Another special, The Belle of Fourteenth Street, followed in 1967, with a sometimes-on-the-money and sometimes-tedious salute to vaudeville. The Jewish girl from Brooklyn amazes us once again by speaking fluent French (then closing with the very Yiddish, “know what I mean?”). Also, she breaks with tradition by allowing a rare guest star – in this case, Jason Robards (she could have done worse).

However, the jewel in this crown is Barbra Streisand: A Happening In Central Park. Broadcast in the fall of 1968 but taped a year before, during the Summer of Love, Streisand seems to shine like a beacon in the New York night.  This would be only a few years before the park would become famous for after-dark muggings. For this free concert, 150,000 people who need people showed up, all of them somehow looking like Woody Allen – even the women (those thick, dark-framed glasses of the sixties! Oy!). Playing to the adoring, well-behaved crowd, Streisand sings mostly and rambles some. The videotape, now almost forty years old, has been digitally remastered and looks as if it was recorded this morning.

If there is a weak link in the chain, it may be the last installment, Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments (1973). Smack dab in the middle of her successful film career (What’s Up DocThe Way We Were), Babs mixes it up with a million-piece orchestra, as well as the great Ray Charles (although their duet is somehow not as great as it should have been). Horrors include her singing about being lonely in a future with no orchestras and only electronic accompaniment (eight tracks! Equalizers!) and, most horrifying of all, she wears a pantsuit. Also, she insists on singing “Sing (Sing a Song),” one of the worst novelty songs of the decade (and that’s saying something).

Even if you’re not a fan, the mere miracle of a woman getting respect after overcoming a difficult young life, and presenting her incredible gift to the world, is definitely worth witnessing.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2005  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 16, 2005.

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