The opening scene takes place at a rock concert. The audience is getting restless, and even a child has got lost. Somebody throws some fireworks at other people and a fight breaks out. Finally, the star arrives on stage, but he is drunk. He sings one song and gets halfway through the second one when he forgets the lyrics of it completely. John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson) insults the audience, and then walks off the stage leaving behind only mayhem.
His entourage gets frantic at him as they leave in the car. They, including Bobbie Ritchie (Gary Busey) are worried because John's attitude is horrible. Bobbie gives John some cocaine, as he does at several points during the movie. One of his band members offers him some adrenaline smuggled out of a hospital by somebody she knows. Another tries to convince him to sleep for a while, as the concert of the following day is really important. However, John insists on going out somewhere.
He is taken to a bar where Esther Hoffman (Barbra Streisand) is singing her own songs. John has taken a bottle of whiskey with him but the bar is unlicensed and only tea, coffee or herbal tea is available to buy and the waitress tries to get John to give her the alcohol to look after until he leaves but John insists on keeping the bottle with him. Finally, Esther steps in the conversation and allows him to drink it as long as he doesn't make a scene while she is singing. John Howard gets mesmerized by Esther.
Soon after, a couple of John's fans find him in the bar and intrude on him by sitting at his table uninvited. The male fan talks loudly over the singing even though John asks him not to. The fan, who is high on something, gets angry at John, asking if he thinks he's too good for them. The fan throws a punch and the two then end up in a fight. Esther and her backup singers take cover as the situation disintegrates. The bar owner manages to break up the fight, announces they are closing, and calls the police. Esther knows the publicity would be bad for John if he gets arrested, so she grabs John by the hand and helps him escape the crowd by ducking out of a back door and they get into John's car.
They arrived at Esther's; he wants to come in but she says no and invites him to come back for breakfast, which he does. Over breakfast, he invites her to a concert that afternoon and she agrees to go. She travels there with him in his helicopter.
At the concert, he starts singing and suddenly gets the idea of making her sing onstage. Esther runs backstage and John follows her. A male fan kisses John - who doesn't make a show out of it, but says that he doesn't like the fan, but his motorbike. The crazed fan gives him his motorbike. John jumps on the bike and starts riding around rather wildly, including going up on stage and doing 'donuts'. Unfortunately, he fails to realize he has snagged a cable, loses control of the bike and ends up going off the front of the stage taking a lot of speakers with him. The audience is getting mad at him and a riot begins. John is taken away by ambulance and all his entourage leave in the helicopter, everyone forgetting Esther and leaving her all on her own among the ruins.
After a only slightly hurt John is released from hospital, he is resting at home by his pool. A radio DJ called Bebe Jesus (M.G. Kelly) intrudes on John's privacy by hovering over the swimming pool in a helicopter, dropping numerous advertising flyers all over John's yard and and loudly invites John to his studio over a lous speaker. John gets angry about the DJ's rudeness and shoots at he helicopter. Bebe Jesus then gets angry and threatens to not play any of John's songs in the future, and never to say his name again on his radio show.
Days later, when John goes to the radio station with a case of expensive whiskey for Bebe Jesus to make peace with him. The radio disk jockey will not accept John's apology and insults John on air in front of his live audience calling John an alcoholic.
By happenstance Esther is at the same radio station at the same time, taping a commericial, John is dismayed because Esther has not tried to get in touch with him. He asks one of his entourage if they tried her home and they say she wasn't home. When he does manage to find her, it turns out she tried calling him but three times the phone wasn't answered and the fourth time she heard a message saying the phone was disconnected. John thinks about it and tells her it would have been because his phone number is changed every six weeks to keep calls from fans in the middle of the night to a minimum because they keep finding out his number.
John takes Esther to his mansion. He writes her name on the wall with a can of spray paint. There, they make love, have a bath together, and he listens to her ad-libbing on his piano. She thinks no one would be able to sing to the tune she has made up but he comes up with some lyrics on the spot and starts singing along to the music.
Little by little, he starts to admire and encourage her. He even lends her his music band and studio time for her to record her own materials with her voice. One of the music producers complains that John hasn't recorded any new songs for a long time. The producer tells him that the musicians are good, but they don't fit Esther's music, style or voice. John disagrees but Esther steps in and changes some of the music to make it her own.
John's manager Brian (Paul Mazursky) has signed him for a charity concert in favor of the American Indians. John doesn't want to do it but he is finally convinced as he needs to satisfy his public just this once, a concert which is supposed to go smoothly for once. When the day of the concert arrives, there is a huge crowd as usual. On the concert, John stops singing, stops the musicians, and tells the audience about a discovery of his.
John has secretly arranged for Esther's backup singers to be there. Esther is forced to sing a song. Although the audience boos when she starts to sing she quickly wins them over and they wildly cheer for her afterwards.
Realizing Esther's talent, John's manager wants to sign her. The media presents wants to interview and photograph her.
John and Esther excape the frenzy in his flashy car. John tells her that she's succeeded. Esther tells John she wants them to get married. John tells her that he's no good for her but she persists. They get married in a rushed civil union.
John takes Esther to a plot of land he has out west, but there is no home on it. They start working on the site and build a simple but lovely house. She wants to have a tour co-starring with him, but he thinks that she should do the tour on her own. She feels insecure and again asks him to go with her. He gets angry, because he doesn't want to go with her. Since John won't tour with her she stays home with him,being only a wife. Outside the house John creates more mayhem on his motorbikes. He jumps from some plank-boards and lands on the ground... without the motorbike. He pretends to be unconcious and Esther runs to take care of him, only to find out her's not hurt, just teasing her. She jokes that they won't be able to have children because he'll hurt himself doing crazy stunts. She teases him back, saying she doesn't like men with beards, so he tries to cut his off, but Esther won't let him.
Brian arrives with a photographer (Sally Kirkland). Brian thinks that the bad publicity surrounding John would taint Esther's tour and that John should stay at home while she goes on tour. Brian tells John and John tells Esther while a photographer takes pictures of her.
John finally accompanies her, but his idea of creating a new music band with his studio musicians called Freeway, but the idea seems to fall apart. Esther career takes off and stays up high.
One evening John goes to the studio with intentions of buckling down and restarting his career. His band is there and are already recording when John walks in.One of them (Stephen Bruton) tells John that the group is now called Speedway, that they have gone on without him and are having quite a success. After all, they had to do something while John was frolicking with Esther. John is hurt and dismayed, but pretends not to be. To cover his disappointment and embarrassment John makes up a story and says that he has different plans: to go on a tour on his own, with only two musicians he found in a town bar.
At home alone John is sad but begins to sing with his guitar, writing a new song, recording this on a tape recorder. He is interrupted by the phone. He picks it up: the voice is asking for Esther, wants to talk to her and asks him whether he is his secretary. John doesn't pick the phone anymore. John tells Esther - when she arrives after another successful gig - that many people are looking for her. She asks him what happened to his idea of going on tour with his old band, but John doesn't want to talk about it, and goes to drink some more.
The Grammy Awards: John supposed to be there and Esther keeps looking around for him. When John doesn't show up Esther wants to leave, but Brian and Freddie Lowenstine (Joanne Linville) stops her. Esther wins the award for Best Female Singer. While she is giving her acceptance speech, John arrives completely drunk and makes a scene, going up on stage with Esther. Esther thanks two people for her success - one of them is John. John knows he's disappointed her by his behavior since they have been married, so he says that Esther doesn't owe anything anybody and goes on to insult the audience and the whole music industry
Esther and John try to leave, practically running away. The journalists run after them. In their blind rush to escape the couple falls down, John landing on Esther. One of the journalists asks John if he has resorted to violence with his wife. John punches the guy, making a bad situation even worse. Esther is outraged at the paparazzi and tries to stop them. When she finds they won't stop,she helps John up and leaves with him.
Esther's success goes on. She goes on tour, this time on her own. Brian is her manager as well. Once, while she is being hurried on by the light technicians and there are problems with the synch of singing and the descent of some stairs, she tries to talk to Brian. John is writing songs again, many of them, but in a different way. Brian finally agrees to give John a last chance. After all, and although he doesn't want to admit it, he appreciates him. Brian feels that he can't save John no matter what he does. Brian calls on John and listens to the songs, and does like them. Brian tells him that these songs are different to what he used to do, but that he would like to have them recorded anyway, but suggests John release some of his old hits along with the new stuff, in case the public won't accept his new image. However, John's wants to go with the new stufff only, so he turns down the offer, saying that he is going to record the new songs with other musicians and producers.
John leaves for his LA mansion, all on his own. However, he finds a "squatter". Quentin (Marta Heflin) is swimming half-naked on his swimming-pool. Quentin seeming high on something. John is rude to Quentin. He wants her to go away. She writes for Rolling Stone and other magazines. She says she would do anything to get an exclusive interview... with Esther! When Esther arrives soon after, she finds them in bed together. Quentin begins to interview Esther nonchalantly, as thought it's no big deal that Esther has caught her in bed with John. Esther is in shock and remains motionless and speechless. John tells Quentin to get the hell out, and she does so in anger, on the way telling Esther nothing really happened because John couldn't get an erection.
Esther leaves the bedroom and smashes some vases and all the bottles of alcohol of John. She slaps him but John doesn't defend himself. She tells him he is not going to destroy her life like he has destroyed his own.
In spite of her anger, Esther finds she still loves John and can't leave him. They go to their small home out west in the middle of nowhere.
One day, John goes alone to the airport to pick someone up and bring them back. He takes his flashy sports car, puts on some of Esther's songs and purposefully drives recklessly and much too fast, ignoring the traffic signs on the road.
A helicopter in the middle of nowhere. The red sports car has had an accident. John is dead. Esther runs to him but it's useless. Esther asks for a blanket. She cries in silence. She wonders what she would do without him. He is taken away in an ambulance.
Back at that huge mansion John had bought, Esther is alone, staring at the wall, still struggling to accept that John is dead. She runs downstairs when she hears John's voice. John is calling out, demanding someone else answer the phone. A mover comes from another part of the house asking if she knows how to turn off the tape recorder that's playing that old song writing session John's taped, during which the phone had started ringing.
The next shot is of John's funeral procession going slowly down the freeway. The DJ who wouldn't accept John's apology, is heard on the radio saying that John was one of his closest friends and that John was one of the greats.
At Esther's next concert, as she steps up to the microphone and the lights are dimmed, the entire audience quietly raises candles as tribute to her lost husband. Touched, Esther softly begins singing one of John's trademark songs that his group performed early in the film, but as a ballad rather than a rock song. It gradually leads into more powerful singing, all of it focusing on their love, the impact he had on her life and the effect on her of his loss.