REVIEW: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story [1988]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 43 minutes | Release Date: 1988 (USA)
Studio: Iced Tea Productions
Director(s): Todd Haynes
Writer(s): Cynthia Schneider & Todd Haynes

“What’s wrong? Do The Carpenters have something to hide?”

There is something to be said about great music and the depths of hell it comes from. So many classic songs and albums were created under the influence of some drug, whether illegal or prescribed, or by a disorder of some kind, both mentally and physically. This is true of The Carpenters and their demise at the hand of lead singer Karen falling prey to an overdose of medication used to keep her anorexia going without the need of over-the-counter laxatives. Todd Haynes decided to create a bio-pic depicting the life of this tragic star and entitled it Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Unfortunately, like most stories of this kind, it was pretty much widely agreed upon that her family life led to the troubles that eventually ended her life. Whether it the repressed childhood or over-protecting parents, the brother and partner more worried about her health killing his career than his sister, or the struggles of fame and the scrutiny the media places you under, Karen never could cope with the way her life progressed. Attempting to keep the wholesome façade on the surface, her dark inner struggles soon became the bigger news story and sadly just as memorable as her songs and amazing voice used to give them to the world.

Unable to secure the rights to The Carpenters’ catalog of music, Haynes has never been able to get this early short film out to the public in any legal way. Understandably, due to the representation of his character and family, Richard Carpenter filed an injunction against its release and the film may never be officially available. It’s a real shame because there is a lot to like about the work … the least of which is the fact that it is all told with Barbie Dolls filling in as actors. There is no stop-motion animation going on here, but instead many static scenes blocked precisely to create interesting angles and the appearance of realism. Framed in a way to be able to move the figures when necessary, but still keeping the “performers’” hands off-screen must have been carefully orchestrated and choreographed. The amount of care definitely shows. Especially when you try and fathom the detailed sets and props all miniaturized to work in a Barbie Doll world. Quite inventive and as unique a thing as you’ll ever see.

The most interesting piece to take from viewing the film is how much it influenced Haynes’ most recent release I’m Not There. Another musician biography, this time about the legendary Bob Dylan, it’s told through the eyes of five different actors, each representing a different era in the singer’s long and ever-evolving career. It’s not just the fact of comparing the use of dolls to reenact the behind the scenes life with the use of multiple people containing widely differing ages and even both genders to do so, but the similarities of the actual style and construction. Haynes utilizes a lot of cut scenes and montages in Superstar, adding text blocks to explain facts on anorexia or to elaborate events in the Carpenters’ life, showing archival footage of the Vietnam protests and Richard Nixon, or just letting idyllic suburbia fly past while a camera shoots out a car window. In I’m Not There he does the same, however, all with manufactured shots. The interviews or the switch from color to black and white occur with new film, everything created along with the script. Therefore, one could say the device is more successful here because he had to edit stock reels to make sense in the context of his story. From the food shots to the old-era movie scenes paralleling what was going on in the story, it all makes an eerie juxtaposition, adding just one more layer to an eccentric format that borders on the line between intelligent experiment and absurd miscalculation.

Surprisingly, the acting is quite good also, with some effective voice work. I loved the almost horror film quality to narrator Bruce Tuthill’s voice and in many scenes, like a later one involving Richard yelling at Karen, the emotions come across stronger than the lingering chance of breaking into laughter at the fact dolls are performing the visual accompaniment. Haynes, thankfully never allows himself to treat the gimmick as a pejorative comment on the true-life tale. He tells it all with an obvious attachment to the material and desire to let the facts become known. Karen Carpenter’s life was constantly decided for her and she soon realized that the only aspect she had control over was her body. With all the fame and fortune being strewn upon her for her voice, she needed to find some control and unfortunately that meant a slow and steady descent into oblivion. Right from the start, when her mother suggests she sing for her brother’s band to her sealing her fate of celebrity strife in a strongly metaphoric scene cutting to a record executives’ outstretched hand—a deal with the devil if you may—Karen’s life would never be the same. Thankfully we all still have the music to remember her by and maybe one day in the future, the world will be able to see her story told artistically and with care … even if plastic toys are doing all the work.

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