Todd Haynes' "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story"
December 31, 2011 7:51 PM   Subscribe

One of the more famous suppressed films of recent years is Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, an early work by writer/director Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven). Filmed in 1987, the short film -- which relates the rise and fall of Karen Carpenter with a cast of Barbie dolls -- barely got a year's worth of festival time in 1989 before the twin iron boots of A&M Records and Richard Carpenter came down on Haynes.*

Thanks to dedicated fans, Superstar can be readily found within seconds, but the illicit feel of watching a scratchy bootleg in a YouTube video only exacerbates the uncomfortable mood of the film. Barely visible and demonstrating a few sound issues that suggest Haynes’ did not regularly have access to good mixing equipment, Superstar nevertheless remains one of his finest works, perhaps second only to his masterpiece Safe. It is also one of the few times he has found a balance between his arch, symbolic approach and his occasional flashes of more emotive humanity. Perfectly timed at 43 minutes, the gimmick never wears off, and Superstar gives the viewer the space to contemplate the themes and implications of its harsh but sympathetic view of a woman’s tragic demise without monotonously beating us over the head with a message. No short film so completely captured its maker’s crystallizing technique just before he hit the big time since Martin Scorsese’s The Big Shave.*
posted by Trurl (29 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks, I've wanted to see this!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:52 PM on December 31, 2011

The movie is creepy. I should point out that it makes the unsubstantiated claim that Richard Carpenter is gay.
posted by Yakuman at 7:56 PM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, but I cannot correlate Richard Carpenter with "iron boots". Must just be me.
posted by yclipse at 8:11 PM on December 31, 2011

I love love love Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. I've seen it a lot of times. It's clunky in execution (mostly when text is superimposed on the screen in colors which don't work with the background), but the way the story is told is really well done and the shaving down of the Barbie dolls as Karen loses weight is priceless.

Haynes is a director to be reckoned with, and he proved it from the very beginning.

For those looking for a downloadable version, you can grab it from Illicit Art (131mb).
posted by hippybear at 8:22 PM on December 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

I should also say, I watched it repeatedly on a 4th or 5th generation copy VHS tape many times before the interwebz came along and provided a much better copy to view.

Be happy you live in this age of wonders! There was once a time (hard to believe, I know) when if you wanted to see suppressed films such as this you had to Know People who Knew People who could get you a horribly degraded multi-generational copy of the thing you wanted to watch. Now, you just go online and there it is!

Ah, the wonders of living in the 21st Century. Maybe this is all part of the Change predicted by the turning of the Mayan calendar!
posted by hippybear at 8:27 PM on December 31, 2011 [15 favorites]

Previously-ish (albeit in a comment).
posted by mosk at 9:14 PM on December 31, 2011

Oooh, I saw this about fifteen years ago (!) at that little underground theatre in East Vancouver. Edison Electric? It felt very illicit. I can't believe it was that long ago...

I thought Mattel had given him a hard time, too, but maybe that was just part of the folklore.
posted by looli at 9:49 PM on December 31, 2011

The movie is creepy. I should point out that it makes the unsubstantiated claim that Richard Carpenter is gay.

In that case, he should be promoting it. The only Carpenter biopic I can remember is a film I watched as a pre- or early teen and tmy mother had to explain the weird subtext I couldn't understand was that Richard was fucking his sister.
posted by rodgerd at 10:46 PM on December 31, 2011

When I was fresh out of high school (1998 or so) I had a roommate who was one of those cult weirdo VHS collectors who turned me on to a million oddball flicks - Accion Mutante, Tombs of the Blind Dead all kinds of our there shit.

For whatever reason, Superstar was his favorite movie, and he watched it nonstop. Like once a week. Something about that movie really spoke to him.
posted by to sir with millipedes at 2:19 AM on January 1, 2012

I have had two absolutely awful bootlegs of Superstar, the first on barely watchable VHS, the second on a DVD with no sound.

I am sure I was convinced for an embarrasing periond of time that i had no sound.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:47 AM on January 1, 2012

Richard isn't gay?! How weird is that.
posted by Goofyy at 3:05 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I too got to see it on VHS years ago, before the interwebs, because I knew someone who ran a video rental store who knew someone etc. It is indeed a deeply disturbing story.
At the time, a friend of mine was doing some art work involving Barbie dolls, so we were really into Barbie, getting up early on saturdays hunting for them at tag sales and church rummage sales, and building these scenes. so seeing the film was mostly about seeing serious art done with barbies, we had no idea what we were getting into...
posted by Abinadab at 3:15 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Saw it at some theater in Georgetown, DC, in '89. I remember reading at the time that Mattel was none too pleased about the movie as well as Carpenter and A&M.
posted by JanetLand at 5:18 AM on January 1, 2012

Superstar was done first and better by Delaney & Bonnie.
posted by jonmc at 7:49 AM on January 1, 2012

I should point out that it makes the unsubstantiated claim that Richard Carpenter is gay.

Does it? The only moment I can find is when Barbie Karen asks Ken Richard “Do the Carpenters have something to hide?” and mentions them having a secret life, which I presume could also reference drug use, or other assorted rumors.

But perhaps I missed something more specific. I thought Haynes was being more cagey with these topics, and so I may have overlooked something.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:26 AM on January 1, 2012

I too had one of those crazy vhs collector friends, so this movie makes me want to trip and watch apocolypse pooh....
posted by dejah420 at 10:03 AM on January 1, 2012

While I never met Todd Haynes, I do actually know some of the people who were involved in making this and yet I have never seen it before, so thanks!

As a side note, when I was a kid I found The Carpenters super creepy and I can't listen to Karen's voice at all. I would prefer listening to chalk screeching on a blackboard, seriously.
posted by maggiemaggie at 10:07 AM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

this movie makes me want to trip and watch apocolypse pooh

Here you go!
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:30 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

when I was a kid I found The Carpenters super creepy and I can't listen to Karen's voice at all

I am completely unable to grok this statement. Karen's voice has this ability to cut through all my defenses and go straight to my heart and resonate there.

I guess it's like how I don't like watermelon, but everyone else seems to love it. Sometimes there's just something which doesn't work for some people.
posted by hippybear at 10:35 AM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I should point out that it makes the unsubstantiated claim that Richard Carpenter is gay.

Does it?

Yeah, it does. It's elliptical, but the hints that Richard is gay are there, like at 29:16, when he introduces his "terrific guy" pal to Karen, followed quickly at 30:20 with Karen responding to Richard's threat to tell their parents about her renewed Ex-Lax use by threatening to tattle about "you and your private life," to which Richard responds, "If you say one word to them, one fucking word, Karen" and she responds, "They're going to find out sooner or later" and Richards screams, "YOU LITTLE BITCH!"

Yeah, it does.

Oh, and thanks, Trurl. Superstar is one of my favorite movies ever, a goddamn brilliant and utterly harrowing little film, telling Karen's sad, sad story by linking it to thoughtful stuff about family abuse, post-WWII consumer cornucopia culture, celebrity and mental illness, with really effective editing and use of fucked-up sound collage - it's just an amazingly powerful film that shouldn't be as good as it is, but is anyway. The section starting at 20:00 and continuing through to the start of "Rainy Days and Mondays" captures a lot of what makes the movie so great.

And yeah, count me among those who think Karen Carpenter's voice is heartbreakingly good.
posted by mediareport at 10:51 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember seeing this in Washington, DC, in the late 80s. Just a few of us in the theater. I was enthralled and went to see it again. Karen Carpenter's vocals work straight into my heart -- joyful and tinged with profound sadness. Todd Haynes' take is worth a viewing in any format you can find.
posted by greggster at 11:43 AM on January 1, 2012

Oh yeah forgot to mention the feminist angle. It's a pretty damn feminist flick.
posted by mediareport at 11:43 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I saw this film by surprise in a selection at the Toronto Film Festival. It made me get more interested in their music, which I had dismissed until then.

Karen Carpenter was a talented drummer. John Bonham once joked about getting outvoted by Karen in a Playboy Magazine Music Poll. Most of her drum soloing on YT is from broadcast and has fuzzy audio quality and goofy facial expressions.

Here's a low-key Leon Russell cover.
posted by ovvl at 12:28 PM on January 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

ovvl, I still think the drumming videos on YouTube are great; she's obviously enjoying herself and the talent shines through, even if the settings are sometimes pretty gimmicky.

Anyone who thinks they know Karen Carpenter but hasn't seen her drum should start here or here or here. Yeah, I know they're all the same song, but still. It'll change the way you think of her for sure.
posted by mediareport at 3:04 PM on January 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

Blank stares are all I would get from people to whom I profess my love for Karen Carpenter's singing. (My friends are into Trane, Bird, Monk, Lady Day, Sun Ra, James Brown, as am what is it about Karen Carpenter's voice I love? I don't know.) And yeah, getting a fuzzy old VHS copy of the film many years ago was quite a thrill.

When I play "Superstar" on the piano, I am thinking of Leon Russell, Luther Vandross and Karen Carpenter all at the same interesting aesthetic exercise...
posted by kozad at 10:24 PM on January 1, 2012

In the book Forever Barbie, a therapist at an eating disorders clinic talked about showing this to some of her patients. They were very moved, especially by the carving away at Barbie's face to replicate anorexic symptoms.

(It's been years since I've read this book, but I also remember reading that Haynes used other, non-Barbie fashion this true?)
posted by pxe2000 at 6:29 AM on January 2, 2012

so what is it about Karen Carpenter's voice I love? I don't know.

It's the way her alto voice just seems to fall out of her effortlessly with rich overtones and always a touch of sadness even in the most joyous of melodies. It's like she's not even trying, but this amazing noise comes out of her without her even realizing its spellbinding power. Definitely in the "I could use this for evil but don't even know I have it so it will only be used for good" category of amazing voices.
posted by hippybear at 4:37 PM on January 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Richard isn't gay?! How weird is that.

Goofyy, in all seriousness... no one in this thread has suggested that Richard Carpenter isn't gay.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:50 PM on January 3, 2012

I loved Safe, and was completely unable to explain the appeal to other people who'd seen it or even to myself. Looks like I should check this out too, thanks so much for posting it.
posted by harriet vane at 3:18 AM on January 8, 2012

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