Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)

Thirty-five years ago today, the film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story premiered. Often bootlegged, this film is a cult classic for several reasons. A toy company, a record label, and a family all sued to have the film pulled. It worked in halting the formal showings, but failed in halting the cult status. The entire film is posted below.


Title: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Produced by: Todd Haynes, Cynthia Schneider
Written by: Todd Haynes, Cynthia Schneider
Starring: Merrill Gruver, Michael Edwards
Narrated by: Gwen Kraus, Bruce Tuthill
Music by: The Carpenters
Cinematography: Barry Ellsworth
Edited by: Todd Haynes
Production company: Iced Tea Productions
Distributed by: American International Video Search, Inc.
Release date: April 30, 1988
Running time: 43 minutes
Language: English

The film follows Karen Carpenter from the time of her “discovery” in 1966, her quick rise to stardom, to her untimely death by cardiac arrest (secondary to anorexia nervosa) in 1983. It begins in Karen’s parents’ home in Downey, California on February 4, 1983, and the viewer follows through the eyes of Karen’s mother, Agnes Carpenter, as she discovers her body in a closet. The film then returns by flashback to 1966, and touches on major points in Karen’s life including the duo’s signing with the A&M record label, their initial success and subsequent decline, Karen’s development of anorexia nervosa, her 14-month marriage to Thomas Burris, Karen’s on-stage collapse in Las Vegas, her search for treatment for her anorexia nervosa, the attempt to restart her career, and finally a claim that she gradually developed a reliance on syrup of ipecac (a product that, unbeknownst to her, destroyed her heart and led to her cardiac arrest and death).

An unusual facet of the film is that, instead of actors, almost all of the parts are played by modified Barbie dolls. In particular, Haynes detailed Karen’s worsening anorexia by subtly whittling away at the face and arms of the “Karen” Barbie doll. Sets were created properly scaled to the dolls, including locales such as the Carpenter home in Downey, Karen’s apartment in Century City, restaurants, and recording studios. Details such as labels on wine bottles and Ex-Lax boxes were shrunk in proportion. Interspersed with the story are documentary-style segments detailing both the times in which Karen Carpenter lived and anorexia, as well as blurred and distorted flashing segments that are intended to break the flow of the film. These segments were seen as melodramatic parodies of the documentary genre. The underlying and unauthorized soundtrack includes many popular hits of the day, including duets such as Elton John and Kiki Dee and Captain & Tennille, and songs by Gilbert O’Sullivan, Leon Russell, as well as the bulk of The Carpenters’ hits themselves. However, the soundtrack also includes distinctive experimental synthesizer pieces that serve as motifs during extremely tense moments in the plot.

The tone of the film is sympathetic to Karen, especially in regards to her anorexia, but much of that sympathy is seemingly gained by making the other characters unsympathetic. Karen’s parents, Harold and Agnes, are portrayed as overly controlling, attempting to keep Karen living at home even after she turned twenty-five. Agnes was portrayed as unaware of the extent of Karen’s problem with anorexia. The duo’s initial meeting with A&M Records owner Herb Alpert was inter-cut with stock footage of Vietnam War scenes. Richard Carpenter was portrayed as a rampant perfectionist who frequently sided with his parents against Karen, and he was also depicted as being more concerned with his and Karen’s careers than with Karen’s health. This culminated in a scene where Richard berates a fatigued and obviously ill Karen for not meeting business demands, yelling at her, “What are you trying to do? Ruin both of our careers?”, causing her to break down in tears. Haynes then insinuated, during a fight between Richard and Karen over her renewed use of Ex-Lax, that Richard had a secret that he didn’t want his parents to know about. Haynes’ dark treatment of the film included using black captions which often blend in with the scene, rendering them unreadable.

Haynes also works spanking, a common theme in his works, into the film, through a repeated segment featuring a black-and-white overhead view of someone administering an over-the-knee spanking to the bare-bottomed adult Barbie Karen. The meaning of this segment is never discussed, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination and serving as a motif breaking any intention of normality in the film.

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