Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

5:22 PM

Todd Haynes isn’t a name immediately synonymous with the great works of the film world. It doesn’t hold the weight of the established directors in modern cinema – at least not to the casual viewer. But maybe it should. Today, Haynes is perhaps most well-known for I'm Not There. (2007), the biographical musical film inspired by that freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Personally, I've always associated Haynes with Velvet Goldmine (1998), another music film, this time inspired by David Bowie. But recently, I can't get his first film out of my head, the experimental short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987). It's a biopic of sorts detailing the mental and ultimately permanent demise of the eponymous lead singer of the Carpenters...acted out with Barbie dolls. In the film’s 43-minute runtime, the Karen Carpenter Barbie is slowly whittled away at as the pressures of a life in the spotlight consume her life as she succumbs to the dangers of anorexia and bulimia. The film was meant to be a sympathetic recounting of the events leading to Karen Carpenter’s death, and a grand attempt at bringing about discussion of the then quite overlooked implications of the little-known, or at least little-acknowledged, eating disorders which plague not only the celebrity world, but also those of young girls and boys everywhere. 

The Carpenters, Richard and Karen, a brother-sister duo from a nice family in a nice area of California dominated the music world with their saccharine sound in a predominantly rock n’ roll time. In the opening moments of Todd Haynes’ Superstar, we’re treated to a dramatic re-enactment in black and white of Karen Carpenter’s mother frantically scouring the family home in search of her daughter. At the end of the sequence, Karen is discovered dead, splayed out on the floor of the bedroom, prompting her mother to wail “Karen!” over and over again. These dramatic first few moments are starkly contrasted by the rest of the film which details the beginnings of the musical career of the Carpenters, with characters acted out by Barbie and Ken dolls. Maybe an insensitive sounding portrayal but the incredible thing about Haynes’ work is that the representation by Barbies is, although at first a bit strange, a pretty perfect way of realizing the tragedy of the real-life story. The idea might appear to be aiming for a comedic edge, but Superstar is anything but funny.
The primary focus of the film is on the eating habits and unhealthy outlook on body image which is held by Karen, and the effect that a controlling family and lifestyle had on her personal life. Throughout the film, Haynes literally whittles away at the already unrealistically proportioned doll, creating gaunt features and a skeletal appearance. By the end of her life, Karen Carpenter weighed 110 pounds, having recovered from being at an all-time low of ninety pounds. She died from a heart attack on-set by weaknesses caused by her anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Two years after Haynes released Superstar, Karen Carpenter’s brother Richard produced a made-for-TV film titled The Karen Carpenter Story which would likewise present a sympathetic story about Karen’s struggle with body image and eating disorders, minus of course the dictatorial control from her parents and the implied homosexuality of her brother presented in Haynes’ vision of the story. Having now seen both the Todd Haynes’ version of the events and Richard Carpenter’s, I can say that Haynes’ is by and far more impactful in terms of creating a culture within his film of the dangers of an obsessive view of food and body image. Where Richard Carpenter’s recounting of his sister’s life is riddled with hesitant notes of going full-force into the terrain of disorder acknowledgement, Haynes doesn't shy away from imparting an important message, and actually the representation of Karen Carpenter through a Barbie doll is stronger than the representation of the singer via Cynthia Gibb’s real-life acting. The use of Barbie dolls is an extraordinary critique in and of itself, when Barbies in general stand for a whole culture that encourages unrealistic and ultimately unhealthy expectations of female beauty. Especially considering the popularity of the dolls in the 1960s onwards, the usage of the figures both as a prop and a criticism on the absurdity of a singular feminine ideal is extremely effective when they are being used at once for and against their purpose.  

A few sources I found claimed that a viewing of Superstar would be difficult to obtain, considering its various copyright infringements. I managed to find the film within seconds on multiple websites, including YouTube. Haynes originally hoped that the film would be screened to young girls and counsellors, but his request was denied, with his film plummeting to depths of obscurity due to its highly illegal status. Now an infamous beacon on the circuit of not just experimental film, but also cult film, its presence on various corners of the internet is kind of perfect for the renegade nature of the work, suddenly having a platform for millions of potentials viewers. 

Watch the full film here.

My rating: 7.5 cats out of 10

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Dir. Todd Haynes
Starring Barbie & Friends
43 mins | USA

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