In the early 1970s, there was no pop group that was as popular as the Carpenters. The sibling duo of Richard and Karen Carpenter, they brought an alternative to the loud sounds of rock with soft yet melodic-driven pop. While some thought their music was cheesy, the Carpenters were also a guilty pleasure for the most hardcore rock acts. While the group sustained their popularity through the 1970s, it all ended tragically when Karen Carpenter died in 1983 from a heart attack due to the effects of anorexia she had suffered through in the late 70s.
While the Carpenters remained popular in the 80s and beyond through Richard Carpenter’s supervision of reissues and creating new Carpenters compilations. Richard had also been very protective about the group’s legacy and brand name. In 1987, Richard Carpenter went to war against an unknown filmmaker on the rise who created a strange, unconventional bio-pic about the Carpenters. Though Richard would eventually win in blocking the film from circulation in 1990, he would end up giving attention to this unknown director named Todd Haynes as his controversial bio-pic would gain cult status called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.
Directed and produced by Todd Haynes with a script co-written with Cynthia Schneider. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story tells the life of Karen Carpenter from her early years to her tragic death in 1983. Instead of using actors to play the roles, Haynes employed Barbie dolls to play the characters to create a world that is truly dark in contrast to the Carpenters upbeat pop sound. The result is a fascinating yet eerie short film from Todd Haynes.
It’s the late 1960s as Richard Carpenter is trying to get his music career going when he and his parents hear Karen singing along to Dionne Warwick’s rendition of I’ll Never Fall in Love Again. They decide to record a demo of a cover of that song where they get the attention of A&M records chief Herb Alpert who signs them. By 1970, the Carpenters hit it big as a wholesome yet safe pop act that was in sharp contrast to the political turmoil in America as well as the loud rock music that was happening at the same time. While the Carpenters soar in the charts, Karen develops a self-image problem as a press columnist called her chubby. In response, she tries to lose weight which would take a toll on her life.
With the Carpenters becoming a worldwide sensation, the attempt to maintain a wholesome image while still living at the home of their parents troubles Karen. With the Carpenters epitomizing what was the ideal representation of America by President Nixon, not everyone liked the group. While they continued to be successful, Karen’s obsession with controlling her image was worrying Richard. Notably at a show when Karen collapses due to exhaustion as she was treated to regain her health. Unfortunately, Karen is starting to feel stifled by Richard’s control as well as her mother Agnes.
With Karen wanting to live on her own and eventually, living on her own. Her obsession with being thin hasn’t stopped leading to a confrontation with Richard. With no control in her life, Karen meets Tom Burris whom she would briefly marry while desperate to want to regain her health. Yet, her attempts along with a new obsession would lead to tragedy.
The film is a mixture of all sorts of genres meshed into a bio-pic about a singing star. Yet, it’s a film that would feature the themes that Todd Haynes would later recall into his feature films in the years to come. At the heart of the story is this troubled young woman desperate for control in a world she has to do things by a music industry, an adoring public, and her family. Throughout the story, the film is intercut with weird images of what was happening in the 1970s filled with images of war, protest, and such. Even as there’s inter-title cards and text that reflects on anorexia as well as the pressure on Karen Carpenter from the music industry.
The film plays like a documentary of sorts that features random people commenting on their thoughts of the Carpenters in one scene. Even the film is spliced with images on TV and such about the world of the 1970s in both its idea of innocence as well as the chaos that was happening in the decade. Since Haynes was creating a short with limitations by not getting actors to play these characters. The use of Barbie dolls with actors providing the voices becomes an intriguing yet mesmerizing idea. When the film progresses, the look of the face of Barbie Karen becomes more and more disturbing.
Haynes’ direction is truly startling in how he captures Karen’s deterioration along with the way he portrays her life. While the short is essentially a dramatization of what happened to Karen with lots of unanswered questions about a few things. There are a few things that Haynes do insinuate such as the idea that Richard Carpenter might be gay. Yet, it’s an interpretation as Haynes is focusing on Karen’s struggle with bulimia as well as her own self-image. What he creates is a sympathetic portrayal of a woman who was deeply troubled.
With the use of the Carpenters music to portray Karen’s state of mind as the film progresses, there is also additional music from Elton John, Dionne Warwick, Gilbert O’Sullivan, and Love Unlimited Orchestra that plays in the background. Particularly to play the idea of what the 1970s was and what the Carpenters music represented at the time.
When the film was released in 1987 through various film festivals and was a small hit in the art house circuit. The film got Richard Carpenter’s attention as he and the Carpenters’ label A&M Records sued Haynes. Since Haynes was unable to get permission to use the group’s music, Carpenter sued and won blocking the film from being shown publicly. The result had copies of the short film recalled and destroyed though bootleg copies of the film were able to survive. With the advent of the Internet, the film was available again for anyone eager to see it as it’s shown on the popular website YouTube.
While Todd Haynes lost the lawsuit, it was a big victory for his career as he would make his first feature film Poison a few years later while emerging as one of American cinema’s premier filmmakers.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is an amazing short film from Todd Haynes. Fans of Haynes’ work will no doubt see where he would get many ideas for his later films as it is truly a brilliant short film. Fans of the Carpenters might have issues with some of the dramatic liberties Haynes had taken though they might appreciate its creative approach as well the sympathetic portrayal of Karen Carpenter. In the end, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is a superb yet haunting short from Todd Haynes.
Todd Haynes Films: Poison - Dottie Gets Spanked - Safe - Velvet Goldmine - Far from Heaven - I’m Not There - Mildred Pierce (TV miniseries) - Carol - (Wonderstruck) - The Auteurs #3: Todd Haynes
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