Barbra Streisand, who is simply colossal, has a concert special, "The Music… The Mem'ries… The Magic!," premiering Wednesday on Netflix, which is endeavoring to become the home of all colossal things.
It's a title that seems a bit like the parody of a title, especially from a woman who managed to keep her first album from being called, as she proudly recounts here, "Sweet and Saucy Streisand." (It was "The Barbra Streisand Album," ultimately.) But it also describes the evening pretty well.
Filmed last December in Miami at the end of a 13-city tour, it's a generous, multiple-encore affair, whose ruling notion — proposed by Streisand's "brilliant manager Marty Erlichman who's been with me since I was 19 years old" — is to highlight the 10 No. 1 albums she's had across her six-decade career. The conceit allows for a number of "deep cuts" — one of which, "Isn't This Better?" from "Funny Lady," Streisand had forgotten ever singing.
Co-directed by Streisand and Jim Gable, who specializes in performance documentaries, it's more or less a straight concert film. It comes with a preamble (Barbra playing cards on a private jet, doing her own stage makeup), intermission bit (Barbra calling a favorite restaurant to order crab for later, plus "the fried chicken you have on the kids menu") and postlude (Barbra, with husband James Brolin and others, eating said crab, with her fingers). As divas go, Streisand is something of an urchin, even as she is impossibly divine.
"A few years ago I went to Lincoln Center for this lovely tribute event," she says. "I kind of enjoyed it — well, it was a tribute to me."
Although I find a great many of her recordings of less than passing interest — chart-topping, million-selling records, admittedly, but too soft for my taste — Streisand the artist is always interesting to me, and often thrilling, even when her material is not.
Like any great artist, she is at the mercy of the character she converts to art. ("I could not help but do it my way" is a theme of the evening.) She is complicated and contradictory, a Countess from Brooklyn, ethnic and elevated. Her singing is the sound of aspiration, of arrival, of indomitability. It is practiced and it's punk, it's tender and ferocious; she can create an impression of great power by getting very quiet. Her diction is impeccable, her accent unreconstructed. She is precise with her consonants and extravagant with her vowels.
Because she inhabits a song dramatically — a legacy from her early on-the-job cabaret and theater training — Streisand never sounds like she's showing off, even when what she's doing is technically extraordinary. Her range, which has been measured at three octaves and change, is like a cello down low and a flute up high.
One begins the evening wondering whether she might have lowered her keys — she was 74 at the time of this recording — but you move on quickly; Streisand, who does not squander her voice on frequent appearances, sounds great here.
The camera keeps a close eye on the audience, which comes in all ages, dressed casually or to the nines. Significant looks are exchanged between seatmates, sometimes in slow motion. There are standing ovations — standing adorations — aplenty, to which Streisand reacts as though some other response were even possible: "I'm so glad you liked that," "My gosh," "Wow, that's so nice."
The show on the whole, which is designed to fill an arena, is a little broad, a little schmaltzy. There are the kind of jokes anyone with a long memory makes, about "when a tweet was what a bird did and the only people that had cell numbers were in jail." And there is some heartfelt pitching for a better world.
"It's been a very interesting time in the news recently," the singer says (it was the month after the presidential election), "but I'm not going there, because we'd be here all night." She kind of does go there, anyway, with video-wall images of war and unrest and an ailing world. (There are butterflies and flowers coming.) It's not exactly a Madonna concert, but feminism, environmental consciousness and racial equality get their moment.
"No matter what the color of your skin is or where you were born," says Streisand toward the evening's end, "our genetic makeup is 99.9% identical to every person on the face of the earth… It's simply a fact that we're all really just …. 'people, who need people…'"
‘Barbra: The Music... The Mem’ries... The Magic!’
When: Any time, starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd