Barbra Streisand’s 1983 Historical Epic/Fable/Musical/Vanity Project comes to DVD for the first time ever in this deluxe release. Exciting news for a large chunk of our population, though in this instance it’s a case of “good news/bad news” for rabid Barbra fans. With Yentl, Streisand is in full-on quadruple threat mode, as director, producer, co-writer, and Star (yes, the capital ‘s’ is necessary), and her Herculean labours in getting this film made are probably as well known as the film itself. Her obvious passion for the project and the fact that she had a hand in it at every level gives access to a wealth of incredibly detailed information in the special features, including “Materials from Barbra’s Archive”. However, there are some technical shortcomings in this volume that will lessen the experience, even for fans.
Streisand plays a young spinster in a small Jewish village at the turn of the century. Her father is a rabbi (Nehemiah Persoff, in a brief standout performance) who has indulged her by allowing her to study, a practice forbidden by the laws of their culture. But learning is her passion and so, when he dies early in the film, rather than face a bleak existence of laundry and fish-frying, she cuts off her hair, disguises herself as a boy, and runs off. That she manages to make her escape after somehow acquiring a beautifully tailored suit complete with some kind of designer yarmulke is a tribute to either the character’s ingenuity or Streisand’s exquisite sense of taste (listen to her commentary for a while and see which way you lean on that choice). She ends up being accepted into a distant Yeshiva as a student, befriends a very cool bearded student (Mandy Patinkin, terrific as always), and ends up in a bizarre relationship with him and his fiancé, a living china-doll named Hadass (Amy Irving). As the story goes on she finds her situation getting more and more difficult to handle and there are some surprising developments, but by the end everything has been set right and everyone seems to get what they want.
Now, before we move on, I should mention that this film is billed as a musical. Technically this is true, but not in the way I was expecting. Nobody sings to anyone else throughout the movie and nobody gets to sing but Barbra, which is disappointing considering that Mandy Patinkin is the male lead here. The songs are used as an internal monologue for the Yentl character, sometimes being sung by Streisand onscreen, but more often as voice-overs that, unfortunately, sometimes intrude on and drown out actual dialogue by other characters. As for the songs themselves, they are fairly bland and forgettable though the lyrics, as monologues, do give the viewer some insight into what Yentl is experiencing. There is only one song that she sings with other characters present and that is at the end, as she wanders the deck of a ship on its way to America (in a lovely matching knit cap and coat combo – such style!), belting out her big finale while immigrants huddle in small groups all around, trying to act like they don’t notice her doing so. My only criticism of the music outside of its blandness is that Streisand has a tendency to diva-fy every song, Broadway style, even when the song is a prayer that calls for a more restrained approach.
Overall though, Yentl is a sincere film made by a filmmaker whose passion for her project shows from start to finish. The fact that it is her first film as a director, however, also shows, and the final result is inconsistent. The first act is somewhat clumsy and heavy-handed, the final act is a bit trite and unsatisfying, but the middle portion, which makes up the bulk of the movie, is quite engaging and held my attention mainly because, surprisingly, I had no idea how things would turn out and the actors had me involved in their characters.
The disc features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, along with English Dolby Surround, Spanish Mono, and French Mono options. The 5.1 track is a disappointment, as the film is from 1983 and its age shows in its audio. There is no noticeable utilization of the surround channels through the film and the sound is anything but clean. Dialogue is often reasonably clear but there is some distortion, which becomes very distracting at higher volumes. This is especially bad during the songs where I imagine fans of Streisand will want to crank it up to eleven.
The film is presented in 1.66:1. Colour-wise, Yentl was shot with a palette of earth tones that ranges from lush outdoor scenes to hazy indoor scenes. Much natural light is used throughout the film which grounds Yentl in a far more realistic world than one would expect from what is essentially a musical fantasy. As for the transfer, it seems accurate with no noticeable distortion and the print is quite clean.
Ms. Streisand’s Extended Cut of the Film and the Theatrical version: The extended version is just over three minutes longer than the theatrical version.
An Introduction by Barbra Streisand (1:49): An option that automatically precedes the feature, so if you don’t want to hear what she has to say, have your finger ready on the forward advance button on your remote.
Audio Commentary by Barbra Streisand and Co-Producer Rusty Lemorande: Lemorande is Streisand’s co-producer and former assistant. On this track he is basically Colmes to Streisand’s Hannity. He speaks rarely, and when he does it is generally to agree with her or offer a detail that she can’t recall. Barbra does most of the talking and that will be just fine for anyone interested in the production, as she goes into incredible detail on many aspects of making Yentl and filmmaking in general. She obviously has a great love and passion for this project. It’s odd though, that it takes her a good twenty minutes after his entrance to even acknowledge Mandy Patinkin’s presence onscreen, yet she manages to express her love for frosted-glass doors several times in that period.
Deleted Scenes (16:44): There is a nice introduction by Streisand and a small personal note put onscreen to set up each scene.
An Introduction to Disc Two by Barbra Streisand (3:02): She does some reminiscing about the production and briefly discusses some of the film’s symbolism.
The Director’s Reel (6:54): This featurette is basically a series of outtakes that include footage of Streisand giving her actors notes.
The Rehearsal Process (29:32): A series of preproduction video segments that Streisand made as a guideline made before they left for Europe. These were made because of the very short time allotted for rehearsal time. They are basically home movie rough cuts of he songs in the film presented and compared to the finished product. Fans will love this feature because of its intimacy with Streisand.
My Wonderful Cast and Crew (7:28): A pastiche of film footage and behind the scenes material naming pretty much everyone who worked on the film.
Deleted Song Storyboard Sequences: Two songs that were cut from the film presented with the original storyboards as a visual guideline. The first song is ‘The Moon and I’ (3:48) in which Yentl takes a secret bath. The second song is ‘Several Sins a Day’ (3:42), a jaunty tune in which Yentl reflects on her actions.
Barbra’s 8mm Concept Film with Optional Narration (8:34): This is a film that Streisand shot on her location scouting trip to Eastern Europe, used to help sell the film pitch to the studio. It is presented with or without Streisand’s narration.
Teaser Trailer (1:26)
Theatrical Trailer (3:14)
Having never seen Yentl before I must admit to some preconceived notions going in. However, putting them aside, I was surprised by the film. The story did not go where I had assumed it would and much of the story and the performances were engaging. I think this would have worked better as a non-musical but who am I to argue with millions of Barbra fans? The audio issues are a concern but, as this is the only edition available, if you’re a fan and want this movie on DVD, this is your only option. Buy it. The Special Features alone make this worth a purchase for Streisand fans. If you haven’t seen Yentl, and this type of film appeals to you, then it’s worth a rental.