Karen Carpenter had always considered herself a drummer who sang. And despite decades worth of jokes on this notion, apparently her skills with the sticks were bona fide -- I mean if Buddy Rich says so, then that's good enough for me. And after a move from New Haven, Connecticut, to Downey, California, in 1964 14-year old Karen managed to earn her way into her brother’s band, The Richard Carpenter Trio, as a drummer. Thereafter, the group managed to win a Battle of the Bands at the Hollywood Bowl in 1966 with a cover of “The Girl from Ipanema” which got them signed by RCA, but that went nowhere when their instrumental demo didn’t pass muster.
According to legend, it was at a late night jam-session at the garage studio of John Bettis, where brother Richard was set to accompany an auditioning trumpet player, when Bettis encouraged Karen, who had tagged along on a lark, to take a turn at the mic. And when she finished her song, Bettis was blown away by her contralto voice, said, “Never mind the trumpet player, this chubby little girl can sing!” Richard agreed and began arranging music to highlight his sister’s soulful vocals, which she sang from behind her drums and soon became the centerpiece of their performances for gigs at the Whisky a Go Go and several local televised specials. For while Richard wrote and arranged their music, it was Karen’s voice that would be The Carpenter’s sonic signature that fueled their rocket to stardom as their easy listening muzak helped ease the country into the 1970s.
This mellow-ization began when the duo was signed by Herb Alpert for A&M Records, who released their first album as The Carpenters in 1969, which subsequently flopped. Their second album, however, buoyed by the hit singles “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun”, was a smashing success, earned the siblings two Grammy Awards, and made them millionaires. But just as things started to click for the Carpenters, the tragic end was already beginning.
At a petite 5’4” Karen was often obscured by her drum-kit, and so, with her brother and their management’s encouragement, the reluctant singer abandoned her drums and moved to the front of the stage and the glaring spotlight. And while some critics were savage over the easy-listening, anesthetizing music they produced, others loved them (-- Tricky Dick Nixon included). But even with the praise came comments about the chubby and cherubic lead singer with the voice that sounded like hot caramel melting ice cream if such a thing made a sound because that is what Karen Carpenter sounded like. Wait … What? No. Really. She did.
Anyhoo, these kinds of comments took their toll on the singer. And between them, her well-meaning but overbearing parents (the singer lived at home until she was 26), and her micro-managing (and Quaalude-addicted) brother, Karen took control of the only thing she could: her food intake. Carpenter had begun a rigorous diet regimen in 1966 after Bettis’ remarks that sowed the seeds for her anorexia nervosa -- that included the clandestine use of laxatives, thyroid medications, and ipecacs, which eventually saw her weight drop to dangerous levels by 1975, in a sense reducing herself by half, going from 145 to 77 pounds. Audiences hardly recognized the skeletal husk that now took the stage. And things got so bad several tour dates had to be cancelled, and then The Carpenters stopped touring altogether when an obviously ill Karen swooned during a performance at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 1978.
After, reeling from a disastrous marriage and an experimental solo album, an attempt to break out of the cookie-cutter mold her family insisted she maintain, was shelved by the studio at the insistence of her brother, Karen sought out medical help for what turned out to be a then very little heard of form of mental illness and was officially diagnosed with an eating disorder. But despite her attempts at therapy, the singer only lost more weight and was eventually hospitalized in 1982 with an irregular heartbeat due to her abuse of purging medications. Force fed through an intravenous drip, Carpenter rapidly put on weight, putting more strain on her malfunctioning heart. And this over-simplified telling of this tale reached its tragic conclusion in February, 1983, when her mother found Karen collapsed in her bedroom. She was taken to the hospital in full cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead 20 minutes later.
To make this point, the use of dolls seems rather silly on the surface but you don’t have to dig very far to see what Haynes was trying to do with them – and he succeeds more often than not as he pokes holes in celebrity deification and mass-consumerism. On the technical side, the dolls, the hand-crafted props, and the dollhouse settings they inhabit are absolutely mesmerizing in scale and in the execution of the story credited to Haynes and Cynthia Schneider. “It is a Lifetime movie on lithium, a short film that slips between dreamy clarity and nightmarish surreality, which confronts us with the superficiality of pop culture and the commoditization of women's bodies.” [Britt Hayes, Birth. Movies. Death.] And it’s unnerving to watch as Karen’s worsening condition is brought across by the subtle whittling away of the face and arms of the doll used to represent her. And how her disease made Karen “a fascist to her own body; both the dictator and the emaciated victim of this internal governance."
Admittedly, some of the sympathy for Karen is due to the truly brutal portrayal of the rest of her family. Her parents, Harold and Agnes, aren’t necessarily bad people in a classic sense, more misguided, blind-eyed and enabling without really realizing it. Thus, Haynes saves most of the venom for Richard, portrayed as a self-righteous control-freak of the highest order and more concerned about “their” career than his sister’s health, epitomized by a scene where he berates Karen for, essentially, ruining everything after her declining health costs them several gigs.
The film itself begins at the end, with the discovery of Karen in her bedroom, dead, while the haunting chords of “Superstar” virally enters your eardrums, a mix of live action material and puppeteering that comes off as an ersatz and morbidly brain-damaged Sesame Street sketch. It then flashes back to the beginning to tell this tale of woe in a series of vignettes that covers the meteoric rise of the Carpenters and the cost it wrought over the years. "I'm great," "I'm fine," "No really, I'm okay," says our Karen surrogate, a haunting refrain as she’s slowly whittled away, trapped in these tiny, sterile and claustrophobic surroundings. And while the film is sympathetic to the plight of our protagonist, it’s still very, very exploitative.
As it plays out, I cannot even begin to comment on the authenticity of the tale the filmmaker is telling. The line between what is true and what is a dramatic liberty is definitely blurred. His medium also comes dangerously close to fetishizing things. Also, Haynes employs a ton of bizarre, Luis Buñuel-inspired subliminal cuts between his set-pieces to shots of empty Ex-Lax boxes, dolls spanking each other, and war atrocity footage, including several terrifying flashes of skeletal corpses being heaped into a mass grave at a concentration camp. There's also some spectacular montage sequences with images of Vietnam war protesters and pop culture Armageddon played under the Carpenter's muzak.
One of the most effective moments are a set of transition sequences involving a bathroom scale, spinning like the world’s most ruthless roulette wheel, landing on an even deadlier lower number with each cut and spin. The least effective is the constant use of text-boxes with black type that often gets lost in the background, which is doubly frustrating because I was really interested in what the movie was trying to say. As is, Haynes is walking a fine line between satire and a very sick joke but, somehow, manages to accomplish both. It’s like a lot of the Carpenter’s music, really: bubblegum pop on the surface, but emotionally jagged and raw underneath that is strangely addictive.
Upon its release, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter story was a minor art-house hit, was shown at several film festivals, and even earned a spot in the Museum of Modern Art’s film archive. Other parties, however, were less enthused. Rumor has it that Mattel, the makers of Barbie, were contemplating a lawsuit against Haynes but Richard Carpenter beat them to the punch. After seeing the film, Richard was furious over the portrayal of his family – and in particular, a heated scene where Karen lays a veiled threat to expose that he was a homo-sexual. (If you listen to the tracks where Richard sings, there is a very pronounced lisp, and being married with five children one would hope Haynes had more evidence than that to make such an accusation.)
Carpenter eventually sued Haynes over copyright infringement for the use of several of The Carpenter’s songs that the filmmaker never bothered to get the license for. And after Carpenter won the lawsuit, all copies of the film were to be recalled and destroyed, making it illegal to buy, sell, or own a copy of the movie. But the film lived on, via bootlegs and would occasionally pop up on streaming sites, where I finally caught it on YouTube.
But this dark and twisted tale wasn’t done yet. Apparently, a legitimate bio-pic on Carpenter had been kicking around since her untimely passing in 1983 but it had never been made because no script could meet Richard Carpenter’s approval. And when he finally signed off on the tele-film, The Karen Carpenter Story (1989), his demands of constant rewrites to de-villainize their parents resulted in a whitewashed piece of fluff that teetered on the brink of full-blown incestual necrophilia. For according to star Cythia Gibb, who played Karen, Richard insisted she wear Karen’s original clothing and use her make-up, which he supplied, and that she lose the required weight in order to fit into them.
And once the transformation was complete, he essentially stalked her throughout the production. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was off in some corner, on his knees, praying for Karen to forgive him. Forgive him for what? Who can say. Richard, meanwhile, claims the film was a disaster and regrets ever agreeing to it. There was even talk that Richard would play himself in the film, but this was thankfully nixed according to the production crew, who claimed the surviving musician was an over-sensitive, pain in the ass. And this inability to let go skewed the film, robbing it of any real dramatic punch.
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“Karen Carpenter died in 1983. She remains frozen in time, as unreal and haunting now as she was then. She cannot get worse, but she cannot get better; her death allows her to remain in arrested development, just as her family wanted, in a state of suspended animation just like a plastic doll.”
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx – Britt Hayes, Birth. Movies. Death.
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Now, I’ve seen both bio-films, and I honestly think Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is the more ingenious; a true mind-f@ck of a movie that is definitely worth a spin. And while Haynes would go on to make fictionalized big-screen adaptations of glam-rock icon David Bowie [Velvet Goldmine (1998)] and a multiple-personality take on Bob Dylan [I’m Not There (2007)], neither can hold a candle to his first Superstar bio-pic.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) Iced Tea Productions / P: Todd Haynes, Cynthia Schneider / D: Todd Haynes / W: Todd Haynes, Cynthia Schneider / C: Barry Ellsworth / E: Todd Haynes, Cynthia Schneider / S: Merrill Gruver, Michael Edwards, Melissa Brown, Rob LaBelle, Gwen Kraus