Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Cynthia Schneider and Todd Haynes.
Starring: Merrill Gruver (Karen), Michael Edwards (Richard), Melissa Brown (Mother), Rob LaBelle (Dad / Mr. A&M), Nannie Doyle (Cherry Boone), Cynthia Schneider (Dionne Warwick), Larry Kole (Announcer).
You would be forgiven for thinking that Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story sounds like nothing more than pretentious student film. It is, after all, a biopic of Karen Carpenter, half of The Carpenters, who were a very successful, and very uncool band that was big in the 1960s and 1970s, where all the main characters are Barbie dolls. This may sound like something a smug student – or Robot Chicken – would make – a way to mock Karen Carpenter, her music and Barbie all at the same time. Yet, what is amazing about Todd Haynes film – which was, made when he was a student – is how seriously it takes it subject matter, how emotional the film actually is and how the form perfectly matches the subject matter. This film is no joke – it’s actually one of the best things Todd Haynes has ever made – and shows him in full control of his skills right from the start. You can see traces of everything he has done since in the film.
The film focuses mainly on Karen Carpenter and her battle with anorexia – the disease that would eventually take her life when she was just 32 years old. Because the film is about Carpenter’s insecurity with her own body, and the unrealistic expectations that she places on herself to look a certain way, the choice of using Barbie’s actually makes perfect sense – Barbie has, rightly, been criticized often throughout her lifespan for selling unrealistic body images to young girls – the same type of expectations Carpenter struggles with. Not content with simply using Barbie’s out of the box, Haynes actually manipulates the Barbie dolls, stripping away levels of plastic, and changing her body, as Carpenter’s disease progresses – making the Barbie look freakishly, scarily thin. The vocal work by Merrill Gruver is terrific – making Karen sympathetic, stubborn and tragically insecure.
It would be easy for Haynes to mock the music of the Carpenters – it is hopelessly square in many ways. But Haynes takes the music seriously, and uses it in ways that actually deepen the emotions of the film. The way Haynes uses songs like Rainy Days and Mondays, Top of the World and especially We’ve Only Just Begun is brilliant – showing a darker, more melancholy side of the music when put in context with the rest of the film. After seeing the film, you’ll likely never hear The Carpenters music the same ever again.
The film is legally banned – Haynes never cleared the music rights to The Carpenters songs when he made the film, leading Richard (Karen’s brother and bandmate) to successfully sue to have the film suppressed. It wasn’t just the use of the music – but also the way the movie portrays Richard – as a man who seeks to control Karen, and force her to continue working as she spirals downward, and her parents, as control freaks, who sought to keep Karen under their thumb for her entire life – even when she was a rich recording artist in her mid-20s, they wanted her to live at home. The film is still fairly easy to see however – VHS copies in the 1980s were available, and thousands were sold, and the film is on various sites – like YouTube – pretty much constantly (yes, you will find many broken links to the film, but it really will not take you very long to find it if you want). The worst thing about the film is that the quality of all the copies you will find is quite poor. No one is going to remaster a banned film, so we have to live with what we have.
The greatness of the film comes through despite the poor quality of the copies you will find. It is a Todd Haynes film through and through – a film that looks at celebrity – like Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There – and societal expectations on women – like Far From Heaven or Carol. It is a film that looks to the past, but remains relevant to the present. It is meticulously crafted – or at least as meticulously crafted as a cheaply made student films with Barbie’s can be. It is a great film – the first of Haynes great career, and one that can stand alongside anything he has ever made. It may be a 45 minute film made with Barbie’s – but it’s brilliant.