Friday, January 04, 2013

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

USA, 43 minutes
Director: Todd Haynes
Writers: Cynthia Schneider, Todd Haynes
Photography: Barry Ellsworth
Music: The Carpenters
Cast/voices: Merrill Gruver, Michael Edwards, Melissa Brown, Rob LaBelle, Nannie Doyle, Cynthia Schneider, Larry Kole, Gwen Kraus

Todd Haynes's Superstar has won a fair amount of attention in certain circles, "the Barbie doll movie about Karen Carpenter," but along the way perhaps building such an outsized reputation (because so difficult to see) that it may seem disappointing to those encountering it for the first time. It's important to understand, for purposes of setting expectations, that Superstar is low-budget, crude, unruly, often awkwardly self-conscious filmmaking with production values just north of home movies. The voiced dialogue only occasionally and intermittently reaches the level of actual performance and the whole thing is wont to slip gears with little notice between straightforward biopic, social issue documentary, and pure fan love letter, among other things. More than anything it is a display of youthful exuberance.

It is only one of many ironies that its single greatest strength, the way it fills the soundtrack with Carpenters songs, is also one of two significant reasons it will probably never see a proper public release—at least, until that material finally slips into the public domain, well beyond any of our lifetimes. The movie gains unexpected energy from many directions. Its famous use of Barbie dolls, the thoughtful way it approaches Karen Carpenter, anorexia, and food generally, and its confident sense of the popular culture zeitgeist and how the Carpenters do and do not fit. But it is the greatest pleasure to watch always when there is a Carpenters song playing.

Fortunately, there usually is, across its relatively short running time. One of the best moments happens at the transition from a phone call inviting the Carpenters to perform for President Nixon. That living room scene in upper-middle-class California cuts to the Karen Barbie doll propped at the mike in front of an image of the White House. The song: "Sing." It's truly remarkable and effective soundtrack filmmaking, and hardly isolated here.

I mentioned elsewhere that I recently saw Haynes introduce this film and take some questions. Many of the questions were about the Barbie dolls, which remains the single identifying feature of Superstar. Haynes said the idea of doing a movie with the dolls came first, and later he and co-screenwriter Cynthia Schneider thought of doing a Karen Carpenter story and/or something about anorexia, and realized this also gave them their doll project.

Haynes said he was fascinated by how easily the evocative staging and shooting of scenes from particularly romantic movies of the 1950s could be replicated by handheld dolls, and the point is well made in Superstar (it's also worth pointing out that there is a brief scene in 1998's Velvet Goldmine that is the equal of anything in Superstar). As with all kinds of animated film, it doesn't take long to accept the basic terms of the reality here: the dolls in combination with the voices are the characters, each quickly recognizable for their various distinctions.

They are portrayed generally as iconographic products of their time—a more shrill and altogether less hip variation on the family in The Ice Storm, privileged examples of the silent majority of the early '70s, clean and wholesome by design. This is an accurate representation by what I know and recall. The mother is written and played broadly by a screechy-voiced Melissa Brown who is perfectly grating. The shallowness of Richard and his secret gay life are often the sources of good jokes. In one scene, after Richard and Karen have started to become successful, the mother lectures them in their living room at home. "Now you kids are getting big all right but you're not going to get big-headed," she says. "Not if I can help it." She insists they remain there ("I don't have to go into our policy about drugs") and start to think about investing their money, perhaps looking at charitable contribution opportunities. "That's a great suggestion, Mom," Richard says. "And it's very keeping with our image."

Karen's brother Richard and especially the mother bear the brunt of a lot of mocking and insidious shaming. There's nothing particularly unfair about it, the way I already understood the Carpenters biography, but there's nothing very charitable about it either. Thus, the other significant element for why the movie will not see a public release for some time: the Carpenter family will never license the music for it.

Also mixed into this farcical biography and sublime soundtrack movie is an oddly hard-hitting documentary about food and eating disorders. These factual passages with dry voiceover and often very wordy title cards are as jarring as everything else here. But the messages are undeniably good, hard little pellets of historical and sociopolitical data that make interesting connections between food and marketing and eating disorders and the baffling frustrations of treatment—of even detection.

In one of my favorite moments, Haynes goes full-on self-mocking Errol Morris and takes a cameo, wearing shades, in a lineup of self-conscious self-important rock critic talking heads and their well-known thought types, either positive and negative. "To me, their sound was too smooth and manipulative. Their image was too clean and sweet. They epitomized for me the return to reactionary values in the '70s. I never trusted them," says one. And the next: "I think Karen Carpenter was a very underestimated performer. She was one of my main influences. Her vocal range, her phrasing. They were totally unique, totally different. The way she evoked a kind of irony in a song. I mean, just listen to 'Rainy Days and Mondays.' No one was doing that at the time. She was totally unique. But instead she became this kind of joke."

I find it altogether an exhilarating ride for the less than 45 minutes that it goes, with all the shifting elements handled so expertly even at such primitive levels, propelled more than anything by the music—and not just the Carpenters songs, which are front and center as they should be and surprisingly often quite fine, but other stuff playing in the background, "Love Will Keep Us Together," "Theme From A Summer Place," and many more, are quietly evocative and powerful.

Which raises one last intriguing point about Superstar that is related directly to its outlaw status. I think of another remarkable film that will likely never see proper release in our lifetimes (and well beyond Superstar, for that matter), Los Angeles Plays Itself, which is stuffed full of film clips from many different eras, the totality of whose licensing would be the mother of all legal nightmares to sort out (or so I imagine). It's almost incidental to the already very busy slate of dazzling thematic kaleidoscopics in Superstar, but we are also afforded a glimpse of what could be if only requirements for legal licensing could somehow be suspended. Not that they could or should be—that's a whole other set of issues, of course. But the comparison to what can exist legally is striking, even among Haynes's own work, where he was denied access for Velvet Goldmine to the music he wanted by David Bowie, and granted it by Bob Dylan for I'm Not There.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story can be viewed online at YouTube here.

Top 10 of 1987
I really love every single title in my 1987 top 10, and I had a hard time settling on the last two picks for things I didn't like. Yet I still think of 1987 as a very weak year for the movies, with only 1981 providing competition for a more lackluster year across the decade. All my top 10 picks, for example, seem oddball lightweights even to me, for the most part. But I think Radio Days is one of the best examples I know of an essay-film, that Evil Dead II represents an extraordinary leap for horror-comedy, and that Withnail & I, which I only saw for the first time last year, is possessed of one of those extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime performances, in this case by Richard E. Grant. And so it seems to me to go, narrow but very deep charms for each, and not a lot beyond them, though I'm sure many might disagree.
1. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
2. Radio Days
3. Evil Dead II
4. Withnail & I
5. The Princess Bride
6. A Chinese Ghost Story
7. Robocop
8. The Untouchables
9. Full Metal Jacket
10. The Last Emperor

Didn't like so much: Barfly, Empire of the Sun, House of Games, September, Wings of Desire

Gaps: Broadcast News, The Dead, Matewan, Wall Street, Where Is the Friend's House?


  1. I like this film, and it makes me think more kindly about Karen Carpenter than anything else that comes to mind. But since my dislike for their music has led to regular, ongoing battles over the years (including the time Jimmy Iovine stopped by my blog to chew my ass out), I find that it is the Carpenters' music that makes me lower my overall grade for this movie.

  2. I can appreciate your ambivalence!

  3. Re "gaps," you gotta see Matewan, love that film.

  4. Thanks Skip, one more for the queue!