Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) Poster

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10/10
One of the Best Films Ever
dbborroughs2 September 2004
Squashed by the Carpenter estate this film is all but impossible to see. I think it has less to do with "unauthorized" use of Carpenter songs then the fact that Karen's family comes across as monsters and largely responsible for her death.

Quite simply this film is a kick in the face, a punch to the gut and utterly heartbreaking. Despite the fact that the film is told with "Barbies" this film moves you to tears. We watch as she is manipulated in to performing and pushed ever onward with little or no control of her life. This is cross cut with scenes of the time period and with information about her condition. The entire film is scored with the music of the Carpenters as well as the other hits of the period. You will be moved.

If you want to see great film making or great story telling find this film and see it. 10 out of 10.

Frankly this film should be seen by more people then those dogged enough to search it out since despite the tragedy it could be someone's ray of hope out of the darkness.
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10/10
A great, if currently illegal, short film.
androx19 September 1998
A marvelous film made by Todd Haynes, a Brown University student at the time, later the director of "Poison" and the brilliant, hypnotic "Safe" (1995), "Superstar" details the rise and fall of Karen Carpenter entirely through an inspired formal devise: Carpenter, her brother Richard, family, and friends are all "portrayed" by Barbie dolls. The film is not merely about fame or anorexia (the disease of which Carpenter died), but conjures the suburban California of the 1970's, indeed the whole plastic experience of America and American pop culture (of which, of course, The Carpenters and Barbie dolls are most certainly a part). The sincere lite-rock of The Carpenters is juxtaposed with the emptiness and powerful sorrow of these "people"; the film isn't merely a satire--it's deeply touching in a way that many "human stories" fail to be. Upon its appearance, the film became a minor cause celebre in hip, arty New York circles; unfortunately, when Richard Carpenter, proprietor of The Carpenters' music (who doesn't exactly come across as a hero in the film), got wind of it, he called his lawyers. The fact of the matter is that Haynes and his producers never cleared the use of the music--the film was never intended to be shown for profit. Simply, though, there is no film without the music. The still-standing cease-and-desist order prevents the film from being distributed in any form; I saw a third- or fourth-generation copy on video, and it was still better than virtually anything I saw that year. "Superstar" is worth seeking out; it's genuinely (and I rarely use this word) inspiring.
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Brilliance and barbie dolls
rannofxcid6 July 2003
I found out about this movie in the 50 greatest cult films issue of Entertainment Weekly. It sounded like a funny, semi-serious biography of Karen Carpenter, whose music I do happen to enjoy. When I finally watched it, I realized that the movie was a very serious and in depth look at anorexia. It's haunting, brilliant, moving, and touching. I had never seen the life of an anorexic person played out so well as by that barbie doll. It's a shame that this film has not been widely distributed, because it's a darn fine movie that is very educational.
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9/10
Sublimely Brilliant and Subversive
addisonma7 September 2004
Unexplainably brilliant. You have to see it to believe it, really.

Understandably suppressed by Richard--I won't spoil it for you--it is at turns hiariously bitchy, grotesque, tender, and cruel. At the same time, it elevates the subject matter, leaving this viewer with a much deeper sense of appreciation for the Karen. I laughed at them, and it made my like both of them more.

The story is dramatized through carefully and minutely constructed sets populated by Barbie dolls clothed in carefully crafted period clothes. Karen's descent into anorexia is represented through whittling down the face and arms of the Barbie doll that portrays her, which has an effect both hilarious and disturbing.

All in all, it feels so much like a "real" documentary, I can't tell you that it isn't. It's treatment of the subject of annorexia and it's effect on Karen's life is at once silly and serious.

I saw it on DVD. The box had next to nothing printed on it. It was obviously bootlegged from somewhere, but the print I saw had good quality audio and visual.
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6/10
Weirdly affecting
GroovyDoom29 September 2003
Warning: Spoilers
A lot of people praise this film, and it's definitely not something you're likely to forget, although for me this is a mixed bag. The device of using Barbie dolls to depict the Karen Carpenter story makes "Superstar" a little frustrating to watch at times. The reality of Karen's situation, as well as the fact that she was a ubiquitous public figure and very easily recognized, makes for an affecting experience, but this same story has also been told many other times in countless "movie of the week" formats (with other diseases or afflictions substituting for anorexia). I also wonder about how accurate the film is in telling Karen's true story. I can't help but think that much of it is speculation about what could have happened to Karen Carpenter, but that it isn't necessarily the whole truth. Either way, the film draws some very clear conclusions about the impetus for Karen's anorexia, mainly an overbearing family life and the professional pressures that came with her successful career--pressures that, if the film is to be believed, were made even worse by the demanding nature of her brother, Richard Carpenter.

The movie does bring out some psychology about the nature of anorexia, but I fail to see how this could be considered a "serious" study of the disease. The use of Barbie dolls as characters, as well as the deliberately tabloid presentation of the film, seem to lead the intent far from the serious and into the realm of the absurd. Ironically (or not, depending on the director's intention), the real weight that this short film carries comes from the combination of Karen's tragic story with the sound of her own voice in the many sentimental Carpenters songs that are included on the soundtrack. It is the very emotional manipulation that the Carpenters specialized in that makes the difference here, too.

What is remarkable about "Superstar" is how much impact it does have, as well as the scathing criticism of the phony 70s "squeaky clean" image that sprang up in contrast to the gritty social and political movements of the era. It is also a film molded in the morbid tradition of a genre that I like to refer to as the "70s doom" film, movies that were intended to shock the viewer with graphic depictions of atrocities they had only heard whispers of, usually accompanied by melodramatic cues. The opening scene is an ominous point-of-view shot as Karen's mother walks through her house to find Karen's lifeless body collapsed on the floor, accompanied by horror movie music and sound effects. The portrait that it does paint of Karen as a victimized pawn manipulated by her family and record executives is a powerful one, especially in the way that Karen struggles in vain to gain control of her life.

Definitely interesting viewing, although the over-the-top elements of the piece seem intended to deliberately shock the viewer in a more superficial way. Make sure to look for the Barbie doll that stands in for Dionne Warwick. Classick!
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5/10
Bizarre, yet fascinating
overby3 April 2005
When I first heard of a Karen Carpenter movie acted out by Barbie dolls, I thought, "Yeah, right." Actually, it's not half-bad, revealing the ugly side of brother Richard and their parents. It's a shame the movie has been only available through the underground, though, as it portrays the heart-breaking effects of anorexia through clinical narration, montage, and pop culture to great effect. The use of dolls is actually ingenious, as we come to see how Karen was manipulated by her family, her record company, and society to conform to unattainable perfection. Although banned by numerous lawsuits, this film is available through alternative resources. If you look hard enough, you can find it.
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9/10
Richard and Mattel aren't amused at the honesty of anorexia.
fredk_us25 February 2002
Part 1: An important film by one of the few AIDS-awareness directors. All of Todd Haynes' films/stories symbolize the alienation, decay, and whenever possible, rebirth, of the gay man vis-a-vis AIDS. We've lost so many to AIDS, and although today the horror slumbers often, the story here is just as gripping. Combining the details of Karen Carpenter's existence with his motif/approach, Haynes tells us a lot about the suffering, solitude, and emotional blackmail that comes with that yearn for success. I am amused that most film critics stuck to the surface story and paid lip service to Karen Carpenter's ordeal as a girl in a nuclear family bubble. Civil sympathy is a bit of a bore.

Richard and Mattel, the creators of Barbie, have blocked the film's availability; all prints are legally supposed to have been destroyed. Richard blocks it because of the usage of the Carpenters' music, which ought to be public domain anyway!. Mattel blocks it because of the usage of Barbie dolls for all the characters and the overt implication that plastic existence has drastic consequences.

It's amusing and then gripping the overlays of text, music upon music, narrative, darkness, and camera pans that punctuate the film. But the surface story -- Karen lost in her own world of hopeless perfection as envisioned by her domineering mother, Agnes Carpenter -- is a fine one as it depicts a cultural shift from Vietnam's horror to Nixon's false-father stability. (The Carpenters were invited to perform for the President at the White House.) Wholesomeness, in Haynes' tale, requires grit, profanity, endless self-subterfuge and a propensity for collapse. That A&M Records is seen to be malevolent cannot be Karen's reason for self-starvation. That the rest of the rock world is living it up while Carpenters sweat it out in the studio cannot be the reason either. And yet the reason for her illness, like the bird attacks in Hitchcock's 1963 thriller, is never disclosed -- as if it could be, and Haynes shows us his chains of reasoning and events and all we can do is marvel at the Edgar Allen Poe Barbie Dolls and Karen's gradual transformation into Munch visual madness.

Todd Haynes takes liberties with what happened, but usually only as a convenience; it all comes through and through regardless: the family's accidental discovery that Karen could sing like nobody else; the switch from laxatives to syrup of ipecac and vomiting; the allegations that Richard Carpenter has always been homosexual.

Word-of-mouth will get you a copy of the film, which only benefits from the acres of great music the duo produced. Karen Carpenter is dead, like so many other against illness and massive ignorance. Haynes' paean to her strength and helplessness, her soulful gloom and snatches of love, transforms the viewer, who is pressed to create his or her own Barbie-format epic!
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Excellent
jpm2421 May 2002
I recently saw Superstar in an art class of mine, having heard about the film for over ten years. I had been dying to get my hands on a copy, and was extremely excited about seeing it. It surpassed every expectation I had. I can't imagine the story being done any other way with Barbie dolls. When "Karen" is talking about how she feels fat, one can't help but look at the irony that she is being played by a stick thin Barbie but still insists she's fat--just as Karen couldn't see that in real life. Not preachy or cheesy at all, the "dolls" manage to inject more humanity in the film than actors could. One of the most beautiful, poignant shots ever is in Superstar--Karen Carpenter, alone in the studio, singing a very sad song as the camera pans up and the lights grow dim, the only visible thing her shining face and her echoing, melancholy voice. Do whatever you have to do to see this!!
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8/10
banning the film only made it more famous
mjneu596 January 2011
There's a certain brilliance behind the idea of using Barbie dolls to recount the story of singer Karen Carpenter, and the exchange of one plastic all-American icon with another results in an oddly respectful (if suitably macabre) show-biz biography, flirting at times with campy irreverence without ever becoming vulgar. By reducing Carpenter's tragic life to dollhouse proportions the film transforms it into a miniature image of the American Dream gone sour, carrying all the morbid fascination of a tabloid celebrity exposé. But this isn't a memorial to (or a mockery of) the singer's life and musical career; it's an artfully made, near-satirical reflection of how numb and destructive American values had become during the 1970s.

I was lucky to catch a rare theatrical screening (at the York Theater in San Francisco) in the summer of 1988, three years before the film was banned for its unauthorized use of copyrighted music.
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10/10
A documentary of Karen Carpenter's Struggles with Eating Disorders
j922-114 July 2006
Having personally suffered from anorexia and bulimia, my family and I were shown this movie during my in-hospital treatment for my eating disorder. It is highly effective, touching, real, and it does not glamorize or sugarcoat the ugliness and devastation eating disorders cause. I would highly recommend it to anyone, as it starts at the beginning of Karen Carpenter's struggles and depicts her life-long struggle and untimely death. I feel it is a must for any young person facing weight issues, self-esteem issues, or anything of the sort. It is eloquently done, and a must see. The movie involves Barbie dolls, and while it may sound silly, it is so effective that it still makes me think today, ten years after my recovery.
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9/10
More tastefully done than you might guess
ehol28 October 2001
All of Todd Haynes' heroes are outsiders, even Karen Carpenter. As portrayed in "Superstar," she's too square to hang with anyone hipper than Dionne Warwick, but too grown-up to cope with the strict confines of her suburban upbringing, and ceaselessly stalked by the insecurity manifested in her anorexia. Some of the details are probably over-sensationalized, and Richard probably deserved a fairer shake than the movie gave him, but the essentials of Karen's battle with herself are all there in chilling detail. Oh yeah, and the songs, featuring Karen's lead vocals and drumming, and Richard's underrated arrangements, are pretty good too. If you can't see this one, at least get hold of the songs and update your ears.
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10/10
A Wicked Tour de Force
ilikeimdb13 February 2003
Great technique; so well done, paced, scripted; great inventive cut-aways that steal from the best movie cinematography. A low-low budget over-the-top tribute that never fails to deeply touch the Ex-Lax within us all. Poor Karen died but Barbie lives on in white bread heaven. I'm sure the Carpenter family, esp. Richard, is furious with the director to this day.
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9/10
A remarkable movie.
miloc18 July 2006
Thanks to its legal status, "Superstar" is a true piece of underground cinema, and one of the best of its kind. Here in the era of "South Park" the idea of a drama about the Karen Carpenter tragedy acted out by Ken and Barbie sounds like a crass joke, and yet Haynes treats the material with extraordinary assurance. The dolls evoke not only the cultural issue of female body-image but a not-entirely vanished society -- Nixon's "Silent Majority," with its suffocating aesthetic and tight-lipped insecurity -- and the strange sound the Carpenters constituted within it: wholesome, sweetly naive songs delivered in Karen's deft, sultry/ melancholy voice. It was an odd enough voice to be coming from the real Carpenter, and here, juxtaposed with the wide-eyed, increasingly skeletal "Karen" doll, the effect is spooky and shockingly poignant. To what degree the treatment is fair to the Carpenter family is unclear, but as a film it makes an interesting companion piece to Haynes' extraordinary "Safe" and stands on its own as a superb pop-art elegy and a genuine outlaw triumph.
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7/10
Gripping but hard to watch
preppy-318 April 2018
The story of Karen Carpenter. It's all about her rise to fame and her battle with anorexia which killed her at the far too young age of 32. It's all done using dolls to portray the people. Also they show what was going on in the world at the time and cards explaining how anorexia destroys women. This is a deadly serious short and VERY depressing. I almost was in tears as you see and hear Karen trying to fight the disease. It also portrays her family very badly. Her brother is shown as being gay and verbally abusive. Her mother comes across as a controlling witch. Harrowing but fascinating.

This has supposedly banned due to unauthorized use of the Carpenters music but I saw it uncut on YouTube.
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7/10
What's wrong? Do the Carpenters have something to hide? … Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
jaredmobarak9 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
There is something to be said about great music and the depths of hell it comes from. So many classic songs and albums were created under the influence of some drug, whether illegal or prescribed, or by a disorder of some kind, both mentally and physically. This is true of The Carpenters and their demise at the hand of lead singer Karen falling prey to an overdose of medication used to keep her anorexia going without the need of over-the-counter laxatives. Todd Haynes decided to create a bio-pic depicting the life of this tragic star and entitled it Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Unfortunately, like most stories of this kind, it was pretty much widely agreed upon that her family life led to the troubles that eventually ended her life. Whether it the repressed childhood or over-protecting parents, the brother and partner more worried about her health killing his career than his sister, or the struggles of fame and the scrutiny the media places you under, Karen never could cope with the way her life progressed. Attempting to keep the wholesome façade on the surface, her dark inner struggles soon became the bigger news story and sadly just as memorable as her songs and amazing voice used to give them to the world.

Unable to secure the rights to The Carpenters' catalog of music, Haynes has never been able to get this early short film out to the public in any legal way. Understandably, due to the representation of his character and family, Richard Carpenter filed an injunction against its release and the film may never be officially available. It's a real shame because there is a lot to like about the work … the least of which is the fact that it is all told with Barbie Dolls filling in as actors. There is no stop-motion animation going on here, but instead many static scenes blocked precisely to create interesting angles and the appearance of realism. Framed in a way to be able to move the figures when necessary, but still keeping the "performers'" hands off-screen must have been carefully orchestrated and choreographed. The amount of care definitely shows. Especially when you try and fathom the detailed sets and props all miniaturized to work in a Barbie Doll world. Quite inventive and as unique a thing as you'll ever see.

The most interesting piece to take from viewing the film is how much it influenced Haynes' most recent release I'm Not There. Another musician biography, this time about the legendary Bob Dylan, it's told through the eyes of five different actors, each representing a different era in the singer's long and ever-evolving career. It's not just the fact of comparing the use of dolls to reenact the behind the scenes life with the use of multiple people containing widely differing ages and even both genders to do so, but the similarities of the actual style and construction. Haynes utilizes a lot of cut scenes and montages in Superstar, adding text blocks to explain facts on anorexia or to elaborate events in the Carpenters' life, showing archival footage of the Vietnam protests and Richard Nixon, or just letting idyllic suburbia fly past while a camera shoots out a car window. In I'm Not There he does the same, however, all with manufactured shots. The interviews or the switch from color to black and white occur with new film, everything created along with the script. Therefore, one could say the device is more successful here because he had to edit stock reels to make sense in the context of his story. From the food shots to the old-era movie scenes paralleling what was going on in the story, it all makes an eerie juxtaposition, adding just one more layer to an eccentric format that borders on the line between intelligent experiment and absurd miscalculation.

Surprisingly, the acting is quite good also, with some effective voice work. I loved the almost horror film quality to narrator Bruce Tuthill's voice and in many scenes, like a later one involving Richard yelling at Karen, the emotions come across stronger than the lingering chance of breaking into laughter at the fact dolls are performing the visual accompaniment. Haynes, thankfully never allows himself to treat the gimmick as a pejorative comment on the true-life tale. He tells it all with an obvious attachment to the material and desire to let the facts become known. Karen Carpenter's life was constantly decided for her and she soon realized that the only aspect she had control over was her body. With all the fame and fortune being strewn upon her for her voice, she needed to find some control and unfortunately that meant a slow and steady descent into oblivion. Right from the start, when her mother suggests she sing for her brother's band to her sealing her fate of celebrity strife in a strongly metaphoric scene cutting to a record executives' outstretched hand—a deal with the devil if you may—Karen's life would never be the same. Thankfully we all still have the music to remember her by and maybe one day in the future, the world will be able to see her story told artistically and with care … even if plastic toys are doing all the work.
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6/10
Well...it's good
sean45542 March 2008
A lot of people absolutely love this film. If it has something to do with the mystique of owning a legendarily unavailable cult film made with dolls, that's understandable. I think when I first got this film in the early '90's on VHS I was swayed by that and also overpraised "Superstar". Now, twelve or so years later, "Superstar" is no longer 'rare' as it's all over the fileshare sites, and let's face it, there's a world of much stranger films out there. Seen today for what it is, "Superstar" is still an interesting piece, an experiment that works more often than not. The best element I feel is the editing. Great work there. Otherwise, and I'm not knocking it at all, this isn't a great film. It's good, entertaining and certainly memorable, but really nothing all that special. In my opinion, of course.
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10/10
Brilliant!!!!!!!
billcody13 July 2002
I heard about this film for years before I was able to track a copy down. I figured I was going to see one of those jokey - cynical Film Threat kind of films. Boy was I wrong.

I have only cried like a baby for three films. It's A Wonderful Life, Bang The Drum Slowly and Superstar. One of the best films I have ever seen.
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9/10
A comment on the comment commenting on Harleymac's comment
OChrist11 March 2018
Hanleymac"s comment john-brouhard7 June 2008 There is not much I can add to Hanleymac"s comments except I hope Richard Carpenter can find a way to completely stop this mess from ever being seen ANYWHERE!!! GET, IF YOU CAN, "THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY, 1989. I think you'll find it much more informative, and that it deals with Karen's suffering more than "Superstar". It, as I recall, helped make all of us aware of the problems associated with Anorexia and other eating disorders. "The Karen Carpenter Story" doesn't free the Carpenter family from some responsibility for what happened to Karen, but it doesn't bash them either. The attempt on the part of Harold and Agnes was simply to try and protect them (Karen and Richard) from the problems of the entertainment world. If my wife, Terrie and I had been their parents, we might possibly have done things the same way. As for "Superstar, The Karen Carpenter Story", it should be sent as far away as the East is from the West.

MY COMMENT ON THE ABOVE, TO ITS AUTHOR: Just 3 things, really. Because I can't restrain myself. 1) It was obvious by 2008 that SUPERSTAR would never be fully suppressed in our lifetime. Despite his obvious genetic & creative superiority to almost anyone I can think of, not even Richard Carpenter can subjugate the internet. We all know he's tried. and clearly failed, since the illicit outlaw Mattel-mockery SUPERSTAR continues to survive.

2) If the commentator above had fathered Richard & Karen Carpenter (I'm leaving his wife Terrie out of this, in fairness to the woman) the siblings' DNA would have contained no talent of any kind, and so The Carpenters as we know them would never have existed. So the reviewer could never have "possibly done things the same way as" Harold and Agnes Carpenter, with regard to Richard & Karen, who would have been entirely different children and adults than the celebrities we're all so familiar with today. Specifically, the way one manipulates, emotionally and psychosexually poisons, and takes financial advantage of gifted platinum-selling international recording superstars would be worlds away from parenting long-term minimum-wage retail, food service and/or janitorial "cast members" at Downey-adjacent Disneyland. However, elementary deductive reasoning establishes beyond a statistical doubt that in the hypothetical parallel world in which the initial comment-poster is father to Richard & Karen, ironically both siblings would have perished many years ago, either through severely compromised congenital physical and/or mental disabilities, or suicide, either separately or in some type of macabre brother/sister pact.

3). As anyone who's ever owned, used or seen a globe should realize, the East and West actually border each other, so the commentor's wish for where copies of Todd Haynes's SUPERSTAR should be "sent" actually expresses a desire for the film's position (be it in Haynes' manager's safety deposit-box, a website for downloading bootleg content, or in the blackest, most brainless chamber of loathing in. the reviewer's heart) to remain completely unchanged.

Thank you.
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6/10
About death - but a movie full of life
leone_glembay27 November 2015
This is a very charming debut by Todd Haynes, signaling his talent, but it is also understandably raw. The approach is the most fascinating thing here. Having dolls instead of real actors, but filming it as if were made by cameras of the 70's works great. Thus acting is nonexistent, but the conversations are not lacking in spark. In the dramatical context, the minimalistic approach is spot on, but the actual dialogues are too banal for my liking. Also, the messages about anorexia nervosa are not subtle enough, so it sometimes feels like we are in a commercial. Even though I found several significant flaws, I enjoyed the movie on a substantial level. At the end of the day, it is a very original idea, but perhaps not done to its full potential. It is as if the director was 'too nice' to make something even greater, somehow reminding us of the Carpenters themselves.
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8/10
Moving and relevant
Horst_In_Translation9 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers
There are two possible ways which approach to give to the 43-minute short film "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story". The first would be to see it as a historic documentary about a culture phenomenon and the tragic fate of a young woman who was among the biggest stars of her generation. The second would be to see it as a documentary film that teaches us about the horrors of anorexia. You have to decide yourself what path you take or if you try to see it as a mixture of both. This film was written and directed by Todd Haynes, early in his career, over 25 years ago. He went on to become an Academy Award nominee later. The best thing about this short film is probably the music. Some wonderful songs in here that are very catchy and have been covered so many times. My favorite is probably "Rainy Days and Mondays", but there are many other great recording in here as well. A really interesting short film. It is probably personal preference as to how much you like the doll sequences and re-enactments, but for me they were fine. Highly recommended.
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8/10
How many laxatives did you take?
lastliberal-853-25370819 November 2013
One of the first editions of the Barbie doll, Slumber Party Barbie, came with a doll-size "How to lose weight" book with only "Don't eat!" written inside and a scale permanently stuck at 110 pounds. At 110, this woman would be so severely underweight that she could not menstruate.

How appropriate to show Karen Carpenter as Barbie. In fact all the characters in the show were displayed using Ken and Barbie dolls, and it added a certain eeriness to what was happening to Karen.

Anorexia nervosa is a deadly mental health condition. About 5% to 20% of people diagnosed with anorexia will ultimately die from its ravaging effects on the body and mind: cardiac complications, organ failure, and even suicide."

Karen's diet of salad or bean broth and Exlax, and ultimately Ipecac, was a sure route to death.

The depiction of Carpenter's family is unflattering; they seem ignorant about her anguish. Not surprising as they "spanked her like a child" every time she tried to assert her independence.

You may chuckle a bit at a movie using Barbie dolls, but you will soon get immersed in the story behind the story and the grinning will stop.
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10/10
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)
SnakesOnAnAfricanPlain6 January 2012
I grew up listening to The Carpenters, and they are one of the few bands I can still listen to. Their music was always honest and calm. Relaxing, yet emotional. Haynes is also one of the most brilliant men working in cinema, so I simply had to see this illegal film. Haynes takes himself completely out of he film. It doesn't try and elevate Karen to some kind of martyrdom, nor does it manipulate and tug at the heartstrings. Instead, it goes for a very realistic feel, despite being "acted" by Barbie Dolls. Perhaps these dolls allowed Haynes to simply tell a story without judging those involved. It avoids blaming people or any of the other clichés biopics usually deliver. It isn't fact, it isn't fiction, it's somewhere in-between. A lost classic.
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Interesting first film for Haynes
tonymurphylee13 January 2011
In 1988, filmmaker Todd Haynes released a short film about Karen Carpenter's anorexia-related death. The entire film is, essentially, a reenactment of the events with the people being played by Barbie and Ken dolls. The entire film was more from the perspective of Karen Carpenter and is probably one of the most sympathetic portraits of her plight in existence. Unfortunately, the Carpenter family was none too happy about the film's release and, with the addition of several uncleared music rights, was banned from distribution. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, found it's place in film viewing from the hundreds of bootlegs currently in circulation. The film's primary appeal, nowadays, is in the fact that it's such a controversial and illegal film. With the advent of the internet and of youtube, curious viewers can now watch the film online for free without having to pay for a bootleg copy with mixed quality. I have seen the film in question several times now and I consider it a fascinating first feature from a director that would later go on to receive tremendous acclaim for several of today's modern classics.

There isn't a whole lot I want to say about the film, because part of the mystique of the film comes from viewing it. I do want to say, however, that it is as creative, disturbing, and interesting as everyone has heard. To say that it's a masterpiece of cult cinema is a bit of a stretch, but structurally the film is intelligent. It does have a rather slanted perspective. It's more about Karen Carpenter and her troubles. It paints a very fair portrait of her difficulties with fame, and as weird as it sounds you do feel really sorry and sad when watching her. The film's treatment of the rest of the characters, however, is a lot less fair. Richard Carpenter, her brother, is shown to be very fame-driven and rather selfish. Haynes, in fact, goes so far as to imply that his hesitations in revealing Karen's anorexia are out of fear of her outing him as a homosexual. Their mother is shown in an even more disturbing light. She is ignorant, small minded, loud, and stubborn, and comes across as very manipulative and controlling. However, the worst portrayal is of their father, who seems almost like a mockery of sitcom fathers of the late-50s. It's an ugly and spiteful portrayal, and to be perfectly honest if it were my family that Haynes was making a film about I would probably want to wring his neck. Putting aside the wrath of the script's treatment of the characters, however, it is only a reenactment and reinterpretation and I have seen far more mocking portrayals of famous people on several different made-for-TV movies (Man in the Mirror anyone?). I don't think that the Carpenter family should have taken Haynes so seriously, but I understand completely why they did. It's a well-known fact that Haynes, in order to properly portray Karen's weight problems, actually shaved off layers of plastic off of her Barbie doll avatar in order to graphically show her descent. In addition, he edits in footage of informal ads, television news audio, and graphic footage of holocaust victims. This is a much darker film than many would think.

If there's anything wrong with this, it's that the impact of the film is weakened on repeat viewings. Once you get past the actual visual nature of the film, the dark tone, the graphic material of the footage, and the power of the music of the Carpenters in particular, there isn't much left to really dive into. This is really sad to me, because one thing that I can say with total confidence is that the depth Todd Haynes exhibits in terms of musical storytelling, visual power, multiple centered characters and character arcs, set pieces, genre manipulation, tone distortion, atmosphere, breaking of convention, and sound editing make his films some of the most re-watchable films in existence. Still, just because Superstar doesn't hold up does not mean that it is not worth seeing. It is a must-see film. Just don't bother watching it again, because once is enough.
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Superstar the Karen Carpenter Story
kindigth7 November 2010
Though Todd Haynes's Superstar is certainly a Karen Carpenter story, it is just as much a story of values-oriented America, perfectly captured in an American icon: the Barbie doll. Superstar tells the story of Karen Carpenter's struggle with anorexia by puppeting Barbies and Kens to represent all of the film's central characters. It is notable for its necessarily unusual visual style and varied disruptions of narrative, but I was most taken with the compellingly complex relationship that each of the film's three central icons--Carpenter, America, Barbie--all have with their own central ironies.

Although there is a clear tension between surface appeal and sinister social implication in the above subjects of Superstar, their dualities don't corrupt their dual natures toward compromised unity so much as they feed both natures individually and independently: in spite of Carpenter's stress and anorexia, her earnestness and purity of intention are played as 100% real; whatever problematic femininity Barbie embodies, she is still sold as a genuine model of perfection; whatever clusterf*** of societal ills America may be--the film at one point explicitly invokes Watergate, citing Nixon as an avid Carpenter fan--the country keeps unceasingly God- blessing itself.

It is noteworthy as well that these icons don't necessarily lack self- awareness--Carpenter tries to address her anorexia, Barbie caves to some new criticism every five years or so--but that they forge ahead ignoring the fact that they are complex and imperfect entities; they maintain identities of apparent perfection while fostering dark realities, ignoring their irony in spite of their awareness.

These are not winking ironies, they are not overtly clever or stylish ironies, they are the ironies of compellingly and frighteningly sequestered schemas. Todd Haynes recognizes the strange tension of earnestness and irony in Carpenter/Barbie/America, and smartly avoids winking or nudging in the style of his film. Superstar's Barbie as Carpenter premise is certainly clever, but it is not simply an exercise in cleverness: it is a surprisingly but appropriately genuine exploration of its subjects' complexities, and it is worth the considerable trouble required to see it. -TK 11/7/10
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9/10
oddly compelling tale of sexism and anorexia
pontoffelpock6 December 2008
I'm not a Carpenters fan. it's not that I don't like them; it's just that I don't listen to them. but my lack of prior familiarity with the subject did not diminish the movie-experience.

the structure of this movie is pretty much bizarre. it's made up of a mix between stock footage with voice over and "live action" segments, acted out by Barbie dolls. and of course there's the illegal Carpenters soundtrack...

yet "bizarre" is somehow effective. though some images were a bit over-played (showing boxes of ex-lax; male hands; a woman being beaten by a man), the stock footage (and other real-life footage) was a very effective way of setting the tone of the film, and providing background knowledge about anorexia, and the Carpenters in general. the choice of using Barbies as "actors" has obvious symbolism (female has to be skinny, big-breasted, etc.), yet despite minimal physical movement of the characters themselves, the voice-acting was so good that it worked.

10/10 on the voice-acting. and the sets! the backgrounds had so much detail that it was a shame I was only watching a grainy copy with tiny aspect ratio.

I give the movie overall an 8.5/10 because even though I think it did a wonderful job at accomplishing what it was meant to do (make a societal critique about anorexia and the treatment of women by discussing Karen Carpenter's story), it had some technical issues/concerns (not being able to read titles because the background was the same color; using same footage repeatedly), and I just, personally, don't prefer issues being presented so blatantly.

but still something pretty much everyone should watch.
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