Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The recent Jersey Boys and Get On Up have us thinking back on better biopics about musicians.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
The grand irony of most musician biopics is that they conform the wildest, most innovative careers to the squarest narrative conventions. In fitting iconic figures to formula, they make rock ’n’ roll look ordinary—or worse, boring. That’s what’s so exciting about Todd Haynes’ contributions to the genre: Here’s a filmmaker who tackles musical trailblazers by actually blazing trails. His Velvet Goldmine, unofficially about David Bowie, applies a Citizen Kane structure to pop mythology, while the thrilling I’m Not There speaks to the futility of summarizing lives by casting seven actors to play seven different versions of Bob Dylan. Both of those films would have made fine cappers to this Watch This series, but neither are quite as radical as Haynes’ 1987 cult breakthrough, a 43-minute glimpse into the life and death of pop singer Karen Carpenter. The film’s claim to underground fame: All the roles, including Carpenter’s, are “played” by modified Barbie dolls.
Like Haynes’ later biopics, Superstar explodes the basic building blocks of the genre, scrambling the chronology and incorporating quasi-documentary elements. The movie begins with a first-person POV of Karen’s mother discovering her daughter’s body in 1983; it then rewinds to the mid-’60s to depict the early years of the frontwoman’s stardom, and her development of the anorexia that would eventually contribute to her death. From there, Haynes intercuts a fairly straightforward rise-and-fall story—complete with “performance footage”—with talking-head testimonials about the music, snippets of supposedly fake educational films about anorexia, and gonzo hallucination scenes. The tone wavers wildly: Haynes seems to be at once sincerely lamenting the fate of this fallen icon and doing a camp parody of showbiz melodramas.
Naturally, Superstar’s reputation rests on its extreme stunt casting. The gimmick serves multiple metaphoric functions—as a satire of the “plastic” entertainment industry, as a representation of what people thought about the Carpenters’ slick and wholesome pop, and as a symbolic expression of how Karen’s family manipulated her like a doll. Throughout the film, Haynes shaves away the “body” of his Karen Carpenter Barbie, the toy becoming more frighteningly emaciated with each new scene. It’s not tasteful, in the strictest sense of the word, but it is potent. And there’s no denying Haynes’ nascent craftsmanship, his application of traditional film grammar to elaborate miniature sets. The man was still in college, but he was already demonstrating a mature gift for composition and mise-en-scène.
What the director hadn’t quite thought through was copyright laws. His unlicensed use of Carpenters music was all the ammo that Karen’s brother, Richard, needed to get the film banned from public exhibition. (The musician was allegedly unpleased with his unflattering portrayal—and for the strong implication that he was gay.) To this day, no official home-video release of Superstar exists, and most theaters won’t screen the movie. It’s obtainable only through bootleg means, which may ultimately be for the best; this is an artist profile so brazenly unconventional that it practically demands to be passed around like contraband. More irony: Karen Carpenter lives on through a biopic way edgier than her music.
Availability: There are various back-alley ways to see Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which your local video store may carry on bootleg and which can be downloaded through “alternative means.” The film is also screening on YouTube, though for how long is anyone’s guess.