Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

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Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Superstar The Karen Carpenter Story cover.jpg
Directed byTodd Haynes
Produced byTodd Haynes
Cynthia Schneider
Written byTodd Haynes
Cynthia Schneider
StarringMerrill Gruver
Michael Edwards
Narrated byGwen Kraus
Bruce Tuthill
Music byThe Carpenters
CinematographyBarry Ellsworth
Edited byTodd Haynes
Iced Tea Productions
Distributed byAmerican International Video Search, Inc.
Release date
  • April 30, 1988 (1988-04-30)
Running time
43 minutes
CountryUnited States

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is a 1987 American experimental short biographical film that portrays the last 17 years of singer Karen Carpenter's life, as she struggled with anorexia. Directed by Todd Haynes, the film uses Barbie dolls as actors, as well as documentaries and artistic footage. Superstar was co-written and co-produced by Haynes and Cynthia Schneider, with an unauthorized soundtrack consisting mostly of the hit songs of The Carpenters. It was filmed over a ten-day period at Bard College in the summer of 1985. Barry Ellsworth collaborated on the film and was the cinematographer for the Barbie themed interior segments of the film.

The film was withdrawn from circulation in 1990 after Haynes lost a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Karen's brother and musical collaborator, Richard Carpenter.[1] The film's title is derived from The Carpenters' 1971 hit, "Superstar". Meanwhile, over the years Superstar has developed into a cult film, has notably been bootlegged, and is included in Entertainment Weekly's 2003 list of top 50 cult movies.[2][3] Its apparent metamodern purpose as a film, including multiple perspectives on anorexia nervosa, the pop music industry, The Carpenters themselves, and the definition of a biographical film, has also given it a legacy among fans of avant-garde cinema; Guy Lodge, writing for The Guardian, expressed that 'while Haynes is working in a vein of very rich irony, there’s not a hint of snark here'.[4]


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.


  • Gwen Kraus and Bruce Tuthill as Narrators
  • Merrill Gruver as Karen Carpenter
  • Michael Edwards as Richard Carpenter
  • Melissa Brown as Mother
  • Rob LaBelle as Father / Mr. A&M
  • Nannie Doyle as Cherry Boone
  • Cynthia Schneider as Dionne Warwick
  • Larry Kole as Announcer
  • Joanne Barrett
  • Todd Haynes as Todd Donovan
  • Michelle Manenti
  • Moira McCarty
  • Richard Nixon (archive footage) as himself
  • Ronald Reagan (archive footage) as himself


Reception and copyright lawsuit[edit]

Upon its release, the film was a minor art hit, and was shown at several film festivals.[5] However, shortly thereafter, Richard Carpenter viewed the film and became irate with its portrayal of his family and himself. It later emerged that Haynes never obtained music licensing from either Richard or the Carpenters' label, A&M Records, for the numerous songs used in the film. Richard sued Haynes for failing to obtain the clearances and won. As a result of the lawsuit, all copies of the film were to have been recalled and destroyed.[6][failed verification] The Museum of Modern Art retains a copy of this film, but in an agreement with The Carpenter Estate, they do not exhibit it.[5] Nevertheless, bootleg copies remain in circulation[7][8] and it can still be seen on YouTube.

In his analysis of Superstar's bootleg existence, Lucas Hilderbrand, a professor of film studies at University of California, Irvine, stated: "Analogue reproduction of the text rather than destroying the original's aura, actually reconstructs it. Materially the fallout of the image and sound mark each successive copy as an illicit object, a forbidden pleasure watched and shared and loved to exhaustion."[9] However the frequent practice of uploading the film to widely accessible Internet platforms like YouTube has added new dimension to the film's bootlegged aesthetic in the ability to experience Superstar's deteriorated quality, contradictorily, in a digital format.

Superstar, as a bootleg phenomenon during the 1990s, remains a popular act of civil disobedience, shifting the focus away from the copyright issues to its pertinence within digital media and its aesthetics. The documentary continues to be watched, shared, and copied, therefore reshaping the viewers' reception of Superstar historically and emotionally. The tapes have primarily circulated through personal connections, but they have also found other ways to circulate, such as other video watching websites. While the film was noteworthy alone for Haynes' use of dolls to portray the Carpenters, the withdrawal from distribution due to legal problems from Mattel, the Carpenters, and A&M Records made it legendary.

In 2003, Entertainment Weekly labeled the film at #45 on the list of the Top 50 Cult Movies.[3]


  1. ^ Holden, Stephen (November 8, 1998). "FILM; Focusing on Glam Rock's Blurring of Identity". New York Times.
  2. ^ Dirks, Tim. "Top 50 Cult Movies". Entertainment Weekly/AMC. Retrieved January 1, 2013.
  3. ^ a b EW staff (May 23, 2003). "The Top 50 Cult Movies". Entertainment Weekly. No. 711. Time Inc. pp. 26–38.
  4. ^ "Superstar: Todd Haynes's banned Karen Carpenter movie is visionary". The Guardian. Retrieved January 26, 2019.
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^ James, Caryn (April 14, 1991). "FILM VIEW: Politics Nurtures 'Poison'". The New York Times. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  7. ^ Turner, Kyle (November 24, 2015). "The Films of Todd Haynes: Performance, Desire, and Identity". The Film Stage. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
  8. ^ Matheson, Whitney (February 4, 2013). "Today in history: Karen Carpenter died 30 years ago". USA Today. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
  9. ^ Hilderbrand, Lucas (2004). "Grainy Days and Mondays: Superstar and Bootleg Aesthetics". Camera Obscura. Duke University Press. 19 (3): 56–91.

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