Babs or Bette

Barbra Streisand falters with bland love songs, Bette Midler bats Clooney out of the park

Barbra Streisand poses bestride a film camera in a newly released Annie Liebowitz photo. But the noted filmmaker hasn’t made a new movie. Instead, Streisand’s released another high-concept album, this time one made up of songs from movies that have inspired her through her 40 years in the biz — and none of them her own. Too bad she wasn’t inspired by at least one mid-tempo movie song, or one with any real spark of energy. As it is there’s little in this mushy mish-mash of a collection to inspire the rest of us, starting with the highly uninspiring title — a better moniker could have been snagged from one of the album’s songs: “How Do You Keep the Music Playing? ”

Streisand answers that question by loading up an album — her sixtieth — with too-precise renditions of sad love songs and slow love songs and haunting love songs. Every song is overproduced and overwrought. Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly sounded nowhere near as go-heavy and gloppy as Streisand on “Moon River, ” for example. At another point, Streisand teeters on the brink of losing her studied composure. In “Calling You, ” she shouts in a shrill voice, “oh can you hear me? ” — pronounced “may, ” showing that she’s learned a trick or two about modern-day pop pronunciation. It’s an outburst that otherwise mars her best cover, taken from the underappreciated film Baghdad Café.


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Barbra Streisand: The Movie Album

Is she really worried no one’s listening? Well, she doesn’t make it easy. Actually, she makes it as difficult as possible. So “inspired ” was she by three of the 12 songs here that she decided to change them, in each case adding lyrics. It’s not clear why she did this, especially on “Calling You, ” where she conscripted composer Bob Telson to add a third verse that doesn’t add any meaning. Did she add it so that she wouldn’t sound quite so desperate shouting at us to listen several bars earlier?

It shows real chutzpah that she even approached Telson, composer Andre Previn (“More In Love With You “) and lyricist Johnny Mercer (“Emily “), asking them to alter their work. It’s Streisand, so of course they can’t say no. And, being Streisand, they must have assumed her natural chutzpah would shine through in her versions of their songs, or that she would work with her arrangers to make these songs actually sing.

If only. The album is a slog, uniform in tempo and feeling. Don’t read her liner notes expecting a break from her sentimental mood. She’s added comments about each song, written in blog-style navel-gazing, using precious language. She recounts when her “sweet little nine-year-old Bijon-Frise ” had to be “put to sleep “; alludes to her “little crush ” on ’50s actor Tony Franciosa; and mentions a song from her wedding, performed “with a chamber orchestra arrangement by my friend Marvin Hamlisch. ”


Streisand’s album is just one of many to appear with special appeal to gays in advance of the 2003 end-of-year holiday season. You’ll find a better bet in Bette Midler’s take on the swinging ’50s songs of Rosemary Clooney, who died last year. Two of the arrangers who worked with Streisand, Jorge Calandrelli and Rob Buchanan, also worked with Midler. But you won’t hear any similarities as you listen to Midler’s winning new album, which is regrettably short at just thirty minutes.


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Bette Midler sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook

Bette sasses up Clooney standards, striding confidently through most of them, but not all: She knocks the wind right out of the Clooney standard “Come-on A My House ” with an unthinkably inappropriate smooth jazz programmed beat as accompaniment. Still, she outdoes Clooney’s original on “This Ole House, ” stripping the song down to bare-bones bluegrass that adds shades of moodiness.

Midler worked on the album with Barry Manilow, who also accompanies her on the jaunty “On A Slow Boat to China, ” subbing for the original’s Bing Crosby. It’s a reunion for Midler and Manilow, who started out performing together thirty years ago at a gay bathhouse, and later on Midler’s first two albums.

On her best behavior Midler exudes the same playful charm that Clooney did. Nowhere is that more on display than on “Sisters, ” one of two Irving Berlin songs featured from the Clooney-starring film White Christmas. Midler is joined by, of all people, Linda Rondstadt, who hams it up alongside Midler, singing lines tailor-made for dueting drag queens. “Many men have tried to split us up but no one can, ” they sing in their best put-on girly-girl voices. It’s a hoot.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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