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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