Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Runtime: 43 min
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Barbie dolls
A stunning work of art.
Review by: MiamiMovieCritic
Added: 8 years ago
While reading a review of a new book about Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, I discovered that Todd Haynes's infamous short film is available to watch online. I'd been dying to see this thing for years, so I quickly downloaded it as a QuickTime movie off of illegal-art.org. You can also buy a DVD copy, and you can watch the whole film in parts on YouTube. It runs 43 minutes.
Haynes made Superstar in 1987 as a grad student at Bard College. (Cynthia Schneider co-wrote and co-produced the film.) It quickly became a cult classic, but was removed from circulation in 1990 when Richard Carpenter won a copyright infringement lawsuit. Haynes had used 10 of the Carpenters' songs without permission.
Part thesis statement, part horror film, Superstar is no ordinary musical biopic. It chronicles the battle Karen Carpenter fought and lost with anorexia nervosa. The entire cast is made up of Barbie dolls, and if that sounds like a joke, it's not. It's impossible to imagine this story being told in a more powerful and affecting way.
The Carpenters - Richard and his kid sister, Karen - were responsible for such squeaky-clean '70s hits as "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "(They Long to Be) Close to You." They were embraced by the right as a response to the more revolutionary sounds of the '60s, and were even invited to sing at the White House by President Nixon. But, as Haynes points out, there was more to the Carpenters than their wholesome public persona. The film - with its shock cuts and '80s slasher-movie score - is like a veil being ripped away from America's idyllic self-image.
The film identifies several possible culprits in Karen's demise, including a music critic who referred to the impressionable singer as "chubby" in a magazine article. Haynes is unapologetic in his depiction of her family. Karen's parents and her brother are shown treating her more like a mental patient than a member of the family. It's these scenes, more than the use of the Carpenters' music, that most likely led to the film's suppression. Haynes insinuates that Richard was gay by having Karen say: "I'll tell them about your private life." Evidently, that didn't sit too well with Richard.
Superstar is by no means for everyone. The title cards seem deliberately hard to read, and the film's use of Holocaust footage is upsetting to say the least. It's clearly a thesis project; at one point, Haynes gives us an overview of food production in the U.S. after World War II. But it's also a stunning work of art. The director's choices - obsessive close-ups of Ex-Lax pills, the bizarre sight of Karen being spanked by her father as an adult - go right to the core. And the Barbie dolls are a masterstroke. They get at the root of the problem: society's unrealistic expectations for girls. Superstar ranks alongside Safe and I'm Not There as the most radical and profound thing Haynes has ever done.