Karen Carpenter was an icon. It’s hard to dispute that the silky-smooth-voiced adult contemporary singer lives on, in collective memory, as someone taken from earth far too soon. As the Carpenters, she and her brother Richard released ten albums together, which included classics like “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” and “Superstar.” They epitomized the gentle sound of ’70s adult contemporary. Her death of anorexia nervosa at only 30 in 1983 increased the public’s awareness of the disease, and the Carpenter family founded an organization to help raise money for research into it and other eating disorders. The Carpenter family, including Richard, remain very active in sharing and maintaining Karen’s legacy.
Karen’s primary symbolic function is as an icon of innocence and warmth, purity, and angelic talent; there is almost a religious quality to the saintliness her fans ascribe to her. Based on the outsized outrage the family has heaped upon Todd Haynes’ controversial cult film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, you would think that the film subverts or destroys this image of Karen, or that it makes a mockery of her legacy.
It’s easy to see where someone would get that idea. The entire film is famously re-enacted with Barbie dolls, is structured more like a news magazine program than a documentary or biopic (complete with interludes explaining anorexia nervosa in 1988’s medical parlance), and uses loads of unlicensed music, clearly with no attempt at approval from the Carpenter estate. It’s a singularly strange vision, and one that skirts the boundaries of bad taste in its staging alone. However, watching the film, Karen’s character remains a bastion of purity, very in line with her public perception, and Haynes never questions her innate star power and brilliance. What the film does challenge is the Carpenters’ altruism towards Karen.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story opens with Karen Carpenter found dead, with a narrator asking how this could have happened at such a young age. The dread from this first scene, shot from the perspective of Karen’s mom as she finds a pair of disembodied legs in the bathroom and begins screaming, carries through much of the film and most directly informs the next scene, where Richard and his parents discuss finding a singer for his band 17 years earlier. Hearing Karen sing upstairs, they know they’ve found their lead singer — and thus begins a series of life events that are made possible, but not initiated, by Karen and her soaring voice. Haynes shows the recording of the first Carpenters single “Close to You”, and Richard is annoyed when Karen has a coughing fit; later, as the song is played in full, the imagery of Karen and Richard rising up the charts is juxtaposed with Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. People want to escape the controlling and distressing realities of daily life through Karen’s voice, but there’s no escape for her.
The movie emphasizes how little control Karen had over her life, and lays much of its dysfunction at the feet of Karen’s domineering, manipulative family. They push her into her career, her living situation, and her charitable work. It’s notable that a portion in the middle of the film interviews multiple music professionals about Karen Carpenter, and one woman explicitly notes the manipulation inherent in her image and the falseness it projected. Superstar posits this was a feature, not a bug.
Karen’s relationship with food and her weight is just about the only thing she has any sort of ownership of, and her family’s insensitive and callous reactions only exacerbate her illness. Haynes shows Karen’s deteriorating state by shaving plastic off of the Karen Barbie doll and altering her clothes to show more skin. Even in the low-quality versions of Superstar circulating on the internet, it’s easy to see the negative turn the Karen doll takes as she tours with Richard, hardly eating while her brother berates her for it, far more worried about people’s reaction to her sickly body than her actual health. Sagely, the film shows a title card shortly after Richard and Karen get into a fight at a restaurant over her food intake, reading “The self-imposed regime of the anorexic reveals a complex internal apparatus of resistance and control.[…]Anorexia can thus be seen as an addiction and abuse of self-control.”
Karen’s trauma continues unabated. She collapses onstage from her illness, binge-eats, and gets into frequent arguments with Richard, even after she moves out. Her traumatic memories, represented by rapidly intercut and flickering showcases of spanking, California driving, and stick-thin Brady Bunch stars, take up more and more space in her life. She even pointedly asks at one point, “Do the Carpenters have something to hide?” Even brief hopeful moments end in despair — her new relationship and eventual marriage to Thomas Burris ends with a title card saying that they divorced after 14 months. Thankfully, a conversation with fellow anorexic Cherry Boone gives Karen the motivation to seek treatment, and she follows through. But it is too late at this point — Karen’s attempts to get better and get back to work on a tight timeframe have driven her to purge food with syrup of ipecac. This, Superstar implies, is what killed her.
The film drops this last reveal before transitioning to serene footage of a car driving through California, recontextualzing a backdrop of seagulls that earlier in the film announced the Carpenters’ arrival onto the pop culture scene with titles describing Karen’s death. Superstar offers no further answers or closure — the film ends on a shot of the Carpenters’ house with “Close To You” jittering out of time and dropping notes. The tension inherent in hoping someone will be kind to Karen for once and help her seek and maintain recovery is never resolved. The film also doesn’t reveal the feelings of the Carpenter family post-Karen’s death, leaving the 45-minute film as a reflection on how their insensitivity and pressures caused her death.
Obviously, the Carpenter family, portrayed as casually cruel and ignorant of Karen’s needs, was less than thrilled with this film, and the use of licensed music led to it being removed from circulation in 1990 after Haynes lost a copyright lawsuit. However, the film has endured, preserved and shared around, first through VHS copies, then continual uploads and re-uploads to YouTube, the film quality deteriorating and in some cases actively unwatchable (most of the title cards have blurry black text laid over already dark backgrounds). It feels like a lost relic.
It’s a shame that it isn’t more frequently seen, as it manages, despite the exploitative and sensational elements, to maintain its focus on Karen’s humanity and worth. The film is never unsympathetic to her, even as it voyeuristically shows her struggles. There is something wrong with the Carpenters, but Haynes assures us in Superstar that our view of Karen as an icon is correct overall. What the retellings of her life miss is Karen’s power, and Superstar demands that we pay attention and speaks to how the people in her life diminished it.