“Wholesome is Out”: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

One of the few films that remains thoroughly banned and illegal, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter retains some of its cult mystique. It’s a film so unusual that it has the WTF appeal that makes for a good “cult” movie (and I don’t use that term often, fearing its overuse, commodification). Mashing up the genres of the biopic, movie-of-the-week behind-the-scenes melodrama and a documentary about anorexia, it’s almost all told with Barbie dolls.

Officially, the film is unavailable because director Todd Haynes did not acquire the proper music rights from their owner Richard Carpenter. However, it’s well known that Carpenter objected to the portrayal of his sister’s eating disorder, and the depiction of himself as a closeted, heartless control freak. As at time of writing, the whole film can be viewed at Google Video. I’m not sure how they’re getting away with it, given that other programmes that violate copyright regulations routinely get pulled. Even Youtube has it, in amongst the cute kitties and skateboard stunts. It has also been available for years on the Illegal Art website. According to Columbia University Press, who published Glyn Davis’s book on the film (published by Wallflower in the UK), it can be shown for “academic purposes”. The press are allowed to watch it if they’re writing about Haynes’ career. Perhaps its now impossible to keep something illegal unseen. It just gets added to the pile of freely available stuff. Watching a bootleg digital copy of an old VHS, I was taken back to the days when this was how illicit things had to be seen, with the fuzz, snow and wobbles in the recording forming a tantalising index of authentic contraband. Can’t a guy just watch something illegal without convenience getting in the way? When first hit with the lawsuit from the Carpenter family and A&M, Haynes apparently offered to restrict showings of the film to clinics, donating proceeds to anorexia charities. It still is not commercially available in any free sense, but it is “culturally” available. That is, we can find it, watch it and talk about it, so it is not thwarted by the law. It is marked out as a cult object by the signs of its bootlegging. As Davis points out, fans of the film have a strong attachment to its grainy, fading frailty, whose dissolution mirrors the wasting away of its eponymous star:

The fact that the duplicate tapes are somewhat washed out registers the bootlegging journeys the film has undertaken, serving as a material reminder of how the film had to be sourced outside conventional channels of film consumption.

As a bi-product of the film’s passage through multiple generations of VHS copying, Superstar mimics the evaporation of memory, the ephemerality of “true stories”. Like word of mouth or hearsay, it becomes less clear each time it is passed on, but it retains its legibility, albeit newly inscribed with the effects and metatextual meanings of its dissolution. I suppose it would be churlish to complain if digital delivery systems forestall that fading away. It is, after all, my romantic projection onto the film, not a natural facet of its construction.

In some ways, this is a straightforward biopic – it mixes in performance footage (reconstructed, with the dolls, naturally) and soundtrack nostalgia with backstage drama, homelife scenes, and attempts to explain each with reference to the other. So, Karen’s onstage collapse is preceded by scenes of Richard pestering her about her weight loss and her laxative overdoses; he is constantly concerned about their careers, while she fights a private battle with her obsessions with food and body image. Montages connect The Carpenters wholesomeness to the prevailing mood of the day, pegging them as a smooth relief from the roughness of a nation at war and on the brink of political scandal (we see the famous moment of their invitation to sing at the Nixon White House, days before Watergate). We are also given snippets of information from voiceovers, talking heads and onscreen captions (printed in black, just to make them teasingly difficult to read) about the symptoms of anorexia nervosa. At other times, Superstar wears its avant-garde polemical colours rather garishly. There are sophomoric shock tactics like a cut to Holocaust dead being thrown into mass graves as the Carpenters shake on their first record deal, and frequent inserts of a spanked arse that is meant to speak of the hidden shame of the tormented daughter of pushy parents. These jump-cuts, designed to insinuate The Carpenters into the culture, psychology and political history that their music was meant to gloss over, are sometimes effectively jarring, other times tragically, insensitively hip.

So, what’s with the dolls? Is that just a way of cutting down costs and keeping it all homemade? According to Keith Uhlich:

[The use of dolls] is a perfect choice, because the mass influence of Barbie dolls in a young person’s life cannot be denied. They stress an ideal of beauty that, in most subtle ways, engrains itself in a young person’s mind. Haynes is not criticizing the dolls themselves so much as presenting the ideal beauty that they support and showing how naïve adherence to such a mindset can drive certain among us on a hellish downward slope. Using a popular entertainer as the central character further imbues the story with tragedy, for it plays on the false innocence that the media builds up around its celebrities and exposes the humanity beneath.

Lucas Hildebrand reckoned that the film’s transgressive nature came from “rendering private play in a public forum”, as if the incongruity of the dolls at the centre of a dramatic film, or in the midst of America’s cultural history, was a pointed act of resistance and intervention in itself. Glyn Davis, whose book about the film has been an invaluable guide to my own reading of the film, deftly parses Superstar‘s use of dolls by cataloguing the ways in which Barbie’s troubling heritage has been received and reworked over the years. ‘Slumber Party Barbie’, released in 1965, came with a little set of scales that revealed her weight as 110 pounds, and a book on How to Lose Weight that included the simple instruction “Don’t Eat” (is it a coincidence that when we first see Karen’s weight on the scales, it reads 110?). Tom Forsythe’s photo series “Food Chain Barbie” continued the consumption theme with a series of pictures of Barbie in blenders, milk and ovens. Mattel sued Forsyth for misappropriating their character, but lost the case and after a failed appeal ended up paying the artist $1.8million in damages.

In 1993 the Barbie Liberation Organisation switched the voice-boxes of hundreds of Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls before returning them to the shops for sale. This from their website:

The BLO returned the altered dolls to the toy store shelves, who then resold them to children who had to invent scenarios for Barbies who yelled “Vengeance is mine!” and G.I. Joes who daydreamed “Let’s plan our dream wedding!” Cleverly placed “call your local TV news” stickers on the back ensured that the media would have genuine recipients to interview as soon as the news broke.

Barbie’s body, seen by many as a problematic icon of heteronormative, consumerist and figure-fixated indoctrination for little girls, has long been a site of contest.

Perhaps most poignantly, the use of dolls separates the voice from its source, emphasising the disjuncture between the control and precision she exerted in her singing and the lack of power she held over her own body. Karen’s body is not her own. Puppets and dolls can be made to connote fakeness, the most stark example of which might be Team America: World Police, in which fictional heroes and actual public figures are reduced to satirical targets by being converted into marionette form, where their dignity is compromised by the awkwardness, the silliness of the caricatures that hold their place onscreen. There’s none of that in Superstar. Certainly, there’s a diminutive, childlike sweetness at first from seeing “big” dramas played out with little things, and from the use of shots and edits that are customarily used on human actors. But the tone of Superstar is not mocking or snide.

Karen Carpenter was made to sing chirpy pop songs, but this film really brings out the melancholy with which she intoned them. By separating the voice from the image and the body, you can hear it without the pantomime of sweet joy. The music cues are all perfectly timed, loading them with novel irony (Close to You sounds utterly lonely, and Karen’s onstage collapse during Rainy Days and Mondays comes shortly after the line “sometimes I’d like to quit”) giving the over-familiar songs a fresh resonance. For that, Todd Haynes should have been thanked instead of run out of town.

10 thoughts on ““Wholesome is Out”: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

  1. So glad I came across this – I think about this movie a lot, but never picked it up off of Illegal Art. Glad to know where I can find it online now. Thanks!

  2. I agree with fallon, thank you for pointing this out, and for a thoughtful critique of the film.

    I agree on some of the intercut Holocaust stuff being a little too troubling (I assume that we are meant to link the emaciated bodies with Karen’s eating problem), and the smacked bottom more funny that a harrowing ‘repressed memory’, but I liked the idea of the Vietnam War footage and Nixon playing the piano to Karen’s singing! I also don’t know if there was any influence there but I got a kind of Billy Liar feel from the opening and closing sequence of driving past the surburban houses which added to that sense of the stifling claustrophobia of family life but also the need for the love from family too.

  3. To add to the above the theme of the family unit being simultaneously the ultimate aspirational attainment, as well as the thing that can drive you to total destruction seems to be the big theme carried through to films like Safe and Far From Heaven.

    And I’m Not There seems to be performing a similar, though more complex, distancing from its subject through the multiple actors portraying archetypal facets of a legend rather than the Barbie doll representing the hidden trauma of anoxeria and making it that much more obvious. Perhaps you couldn’t have had that later film without Superstar.

  4. Thanks, Colin – always a pleasure to find your thoughts in my comments section. Haynes is definitely interested in the ambiguities that lie between the public and private personae of music stars, as in I’m Not There and The Velvet Goldmine. most biopics try to show you the person “behind the music”, but Haynes doesn’t allow himself such bold claims – he’s always critiquing the ways in which those narratives are constructed, and for that I admire him.

    The smacking might be funny, but I found it a rather obvious visual index of abuse – we already get the idea that the family is a passive-aggressive pressure upon Karen’s sense of self, so it seemed like overkill to have it there, but then this is melodrama, so I don’t mind it too much: it’s defined by excess and challenges to good taste. The Holocaust dead footage crosses a line, I think, between ironic poor taste and distracting provocation, a bit too much like the Radio 5 Live listener who I just heard referring to the cull of grey squirrels as “just like the slaughtering of the Jews”.

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  6. To this day, Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story is only available on the black market. People do smuggle the copies in.

    • THat’s what I thought V.E.G., but it’s also available on YouTube. Piracy just ain’t what it used to be. There doesn’t seem to be any fresh prints or high quality copies floating around, though, unfortunately…

  7. I saw the movie out of curiosity without knowing who the carpenters were (I’m Italian) . I Found it rather great,may I say? It s extremely well done,I mean,as u point,this was NOT a mock_movie .U must have noticed it is far from being stiff ,it has camera movements and everything. The party scene was impressively done,especially when karen slowly goes to dionne warwick to the tone of “don t go breaking my heart” .it has some rather dark funny moments Like when his brother introduce her “this amazing guy!” ( Do I smell Gay!!).that richard must be so dimwitted cause this movie gives her sister a very mature yet down to earth attitude , so that even her tragic ends comes it happens in “peaceful” way,like ;oh well she tried at least and back then there wasn t really much u could do against anorexia.

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