Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Superstar The Karen Carpenter Story cover.jpg
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
Iced Tea Productions
Distributed by American International Video Search, Inc.
Release date
  • April 30, 1988 (1988-04-30)
Running time
43 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is a 1987 American short biographical film directed by Todd Haynes, co-written and co-produced by Haynes and Cynthia Schneider, and follows scenes from the final seventeen years of Karen Carpenter's life. The film was withdrawn from circulation in 1990 after Haynes lost a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Karen's brother and musical collaborator, Richard Carpenter.[1] The film's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 song, "Superstar".

Over the years, it has developed into a cult film and is included in Entertainment Weekly's 2003 list of top 50 cult movies.[2]


The film covers Karen Carpenter from the time of her "discovery" in 1966 to her untimely death by cardiac arrest (secondary to anorexia nervosa) in 1983. The movie begins with a quasi-first person recap of her mother Agnes Carpenter discovering Karen's body in her parents' Downey, California home on February 4, 1983, and then returns by flashback to 1966. The story touches on major points in Karen's life from 1966 on:

  • The duo's signing with record label A&M
  • Their initial success and subsequent decline
  • Karen's development of anorexia nervosa (spurred by an infamous review which described the well-proportioned Karen as "chubby")[citation needed]
  • Her on-stage collapse in Las Vegas
  • Her search for treatment for her anorexia nervosa
  • Her attempt to restart her career
  • A claim that she gradually developed a reliance on syrup of ipecac (a product which, unbeknownst to her, destroyed her heart and led to her cardiac arrest).

An unusual facet of the film was that, instead of actors, almost all parts were 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, recording studios – including minute details such as labels on wine bottles and Ex-Lax boxes. Interspersed with the story were documentary-style segments detailing the times in which Karen Carpenter lived and also detailing anorexia; these segments were seen as dry and melodramatic parodies of the documentary genre. The underlying soundtrack included 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, and the Carpenters themselves.

The tone of the film was sympathetic to Karen, especially in regards to her anorexia, but much of that sympathy was gained by making the other characters as unsympathetic as possible. Karen's parents, Harold and Agnes, were portrayed as overly controlling, attempting to keep Karen living at home even after she turned twenty-five; Agnes, in addition, 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 was also depicted as 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, asking her, "What are you trying to do? Ruin both of our careers?", causing her to break down in tears. Haynes even insinuated during a fight between Richard and Karen that Richard was gay – which, if it had been reported to the public in the 1970s, would have destroyed the Carpenters' "clean-cut" image and the group's career.

Haynes' treatment of the film was quite dark; his choice of black captions often blended in with the scene, rendering them unreadable. Additionally, Haynes worked spanking (a common theme in his works) into the film with a repeated segment featuring a black-and-white overhead view of someone, possibly Harold, administering an over-the-knee spanking to a bare-bottomed adult Karen. The meaning of this segment is never discussed, leaving it to the viewer's imagination – it may be an actual event, a representation of Karen's self-loathing regarding her inability to be the "perfect" child, or a representation of the self-discipline involved with her anorexia.



Reception and copyright lawsuit[edit]

Upon its release, the film was a minor art hit, and was shown at several film festivals.[citation needed] However, shortly thereafter, Richard Carpenter viewed the film and became irate with its portrayal of his family, in particular because the film insinuated Richard was gay. 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 Carpenter 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.[3][not in citation given] The Museum of Modern Art retains a copy of this film, but in an agreement with The Carpenter Estate, they do not exhibit it.[4] Nevertheless, bootleg copies remain in circulation[5][6] 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."[7]


  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. ^ James, Caryn (April 14, 1991). "FILM VIEW: Politics Nurtures 'Poison'". The New York Times. Retrieved April 17, 2016. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Turner, Kyle (November 24, 2015). "The Films of Todd Haynes: Performance, Desire, and Identity". The Film Stage. Retrieved March 6, 2016. 
  6. ^ Matheson, Whitney (February 4, 2013). "Today in history: Karen Carpenter died 30 years ago". USA Today. Retrieved March 6, 2016. 
  7. ^ Hilderbrand, Lucas (2004). "Grainy Days and Mondays: Superstar and Bootleg Aesthetics". Camera Obscura. Duke University Press. 19 (3): 56–91. 

External links[edit]