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Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes) 1987


Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Todd Haynes’ 1987 examination of the pop singer’s lethal battle with anorexia nervosa is currently banned in the United States because its soundtrack uses without permission a non-stop series of ‘70s pop songs, including most of The Carpenters’ greatest hits. That it’s been suppressed is unfortunate, since the movie is an important early entry in the filmography of master genre subverter Todd Haynes. Outwardly gimmicky in the extreme, the movie’s masterstroke, and source of cult fascination, is Haynes’ decision to cast Barbie dolls instead of actors in all of his roles. Media critics commonly cite the Barbie doll as a prime example of the sort of implicit messages American culture sends its children about unattainable body image. The inherent irony in using them to act out a story about a disease that harmfully distorts one’s physical self-perception may be simple, but it’s still potent in context. Because the short film is only a tightly edited, expansive in scope, 40-odd minutes long, the gimmickry never wears out its welcome or overtakes the message. The use of the dolls also allows an opportunity for the viewer to observe the way that editing choices and musical cues can help to create a performance. Haynes’ smart use of camera movements often lends a bit of emotion to the completely expressionless dolls. Despite being animated only in the crudest fashion, they emerge as distinct characters, and one can take from that experience an impression of how a skilled director can create a performance in the editing room from even the most plastic of performers.


To tell its story, Superstar scrounges from several film genres, including the disease movie, the rise to fame / fall from grace tragedy, and the celebrity documentary. For a film of its length and budget, it’s impressive in scope, and it’s to Haynes’ credit that his movie rarely feels as if it’s bitten off too much. He posits The Carpenters as a perfect example of the right-wing tendency to whitewash mainstream perception of American youth when he shows the duo attending a marketing meeting at A&M and they’re told that they could be sold as “kids next door”. Haynes shows Carpenter using the Lord’s name in vain and includes sound effects of her clearing her throat of phlegm while signing “Close to You” to counter that façade, however. Furthermore, he juxtaposes a few of her songs with archival footage of political events of the era that argues that any attempts by the reactionaries to hide the truth about America during the ‘70s were utterly transparent. This thematic thread resonates throughout as Karen’s desperate attempts to be “perfect” and culminates with her real-life White House performance in front of President Nixon. The fallacy that rested in the promotion of her family as an ideal one seems entirely like disingenuous media manipulation in retrospect. Haynes does what he can to right past wrongs here, by including factual snippets about Carpenter’s illness that dispel some misconceptions and explain the possible causes of the disease. This very real information does a lot to dispel complains about any gimmicks that he uses. By comparison, the correlation between Karen hiding her illness and the overall tendency to hide American ugliness to promote the American dream makes his distortions look absolutely innocuous.


* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman