2017 Film Essays

A Musical Necropic: Todd Haynes’ ‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story’

It’s easy to condemn the formulaic tropes of the musical biopic: hagiographic, oversimplified, underwritten and often made with a formal conservatism bordering on cowardice. How many of these films really take a critical look at the story of their subjects’ lives, let alone the act of telling that story? One is Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Todd Haynes’ notorious 43-minute curio documenting the life story of the woman who became an emblem of middle-of-the-road 1970s pop. Haynes made several distinctive choices that make this film stand out in its field, not least the fact that the lead role is played by one Barbara Millicent Roberts, the plastic doll better known to girls across the world as Barbie. Her brother and bandmate Richard Carpenter is played by Ken. Other dolls fill out the rest of the cast.

The opening scene immediately establishes Haynes’ quotation marks around the story. He provides a date — February 4, 1983, the day Carpenter died — and then a POV shot moving through a house. Off-screen, Carpenter’s mother calls for her, and it feels like the family’s home video, despite a subtitle making clear that this is a dramatization. Eventually, the shot reaches Barbie-as-Karen lying prone on the floor, dead of heart failure. A title card lays bare exactly what the viewer is getting themselves in for: “an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity.” It’s difficult to watch.

Some self-consciously “weird” films are funny even while they are horrific — think of David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. Others aim to be comedic and provoke eerie unease from their obscure concepts (e.g. Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich). Superstar is neither of these, despite the Barbie shtick that admittedly sounds like an irreverent gimmick belonging to louche midnight matinees. But Haynes takes his role as biographer seriously, investigating not only Carpenter’s musical career but also her struggles with anorexia and the circumstances that led up to her death. In fact, the film doesn’t have a single identifiable moment of humor. You’re not supposed to laugh. You’re supposed to sit down and have a long, hard think.

By using Barbie in a story about illness and femininity, Haynes indicates not only the unhealthy objectification of women under mainstream culture but also their infantilization. Yet the conceit never slips into cuteness — the incredible scaled sets are full of period detail, and the dolls themselves are backed up by an impressive vocal cast. To replicate the physical toll of Carpenter’s anorexia, Haynes whittled away the skin of her Barbie surrogate — a gut-wrenching reflection of the physical transformations that biopics usually demand of their stars. It’s a queer approach to filmmaking: run with what’s thrown at you, turn it into a tool and get to work. Over the course of the film, Barbie’s placid, unmoving face becomes a horrifying mask of complicity.

Haynes’ empathy for his subject allows him to contextualize Carpenter’s illness within the image of wholesome perfection that her band’s success depended on. This play of contradictions isn’t limited to a single person either — a title card notes that the year the Carpenters were invited to play at The White House (by virtue of their all-American decency) was the same year as the Watergate break-in. Such insistent contextualization smothers the individualizing instinct of “X Factor” stories about the music industry. This is no gossipy sob story; it implicates everyone.

There is a canny use of montage, a storytelling technique commonly found in biopics for the way they compress time (as well as hard work, anxiety and complications). Usually, characters emerge from montages new and improved, problems solved, new skills learned, weak points eliminated. Not so here. Chaos, again and again, finds its way into the frame. When Karen and Richard get their big break in a contract with the record company A&M, what should be a moment of triumph becomes a collage of horror. As the executive reaches to shake Karen’s hand, images of dead bodies and screaming women interrupt, all to a sinister synth score. Other montages, set to Carpenters hits, feature bombs dropping, street protests, combat in Vietnam, death and a recurrent image of spanking. Between anxious perfectionism in the green room and social collapse in the street, the film uses montage to draw an illuminating outline around every “wholesome” Carpenters performance.

The power of this chaotic montage is that it mimics the anorexic mindset. Images of food, laxative pills and bathroom scales recur like bad dreams, so that cheery hits like “Top of the World” sound terribly inappropriate and wayward. Indeed, viewers can’t get through a single Carpenters track without flashes of decay, violence and shame.

As the film enters its third act, a restorative montage strikes at the familiar moment. Karen bravely gathers resolve enough to move to New York, see a therapist and attend to her recovery. The montage culminates in a return to the family home, where all the Carpenters make a toast to “108” — Karen’s new, healthy weight. It’s hard to celebrate this moment with them, as the film demonstrates that those who suffer eating disorders aren’t the only ones who exhibit obsessive behavior. Our whole society is obsessed with women doing the right thing, eating the right food and looking the right way. Karen’s appearance was a discussion topic at the dinner table long before she became ill.

Unlike the usual addiction subplot of a rock star biopic, Carpenter’s anorexia is not treated as a condition independent from the rest of her life. When her mother tells her to stop worrying about losing weight and to focus on her career, it’s clear that those things can’t be separated. When a well-meaning Richard insists that Karen eat some of his steak in a restaurant, he’s only piling more pressure onto a woman immobilized by the dread of public judgment. Moments like these capture the immense frustration felt by both those who live with eating disorders and their families. It would be impressive to convey such complexity with human actors; to do it with dolls is flabbergasting.

Superstar balances a stack of different documentary registers, particularly in a sequence following the restaurant scene. The camera crabs past fully stocked grocery shelves while a female narrator describes the booming American food and supermarket industry that followed World War II (“few could leave the supermarket without buying more than they intended”). Simultaneously, text on the screen describes the condition of anorexia nervosa as a “fascism over the body” whereby the sufferer exercises obsessive control through food withdrawal. By locating this “fascism” within the very foundation of American prosperity, Haynes questions the role of women’s freedom in the land of the free.

When Superstar was released, Ronald Reagan was still in The White House and gay men were being publicly vilified via a health crisis that became a conservative moral crusade. It should come as no surprise then that Haynes, an AIDS activist and leading figure of New Queer Cinema, has an acutely political understanding of illness. Many of his characters are pathologized for not fitting in: see the closeted Frank in Far from Heaven, Cate Blanchett in Carol and Julianne Moore’s MCS-afflicted housewife in Safe, which is practically a treatise on the queer meaning of illness in the patriarchy. Superstar’s protagonist, though, is a real person whose illness was demonstrably visible but not discursively permissible within her consumer-ready image. Haynes disassembles that image, and the process is painful but necessary.

Soon after the film’s release, Richard Carpenter sued Haynes for unauthorized use of his music (no doubt he also objected to his own negative characterization, as well as the implication that he was in the closet). In 1990, all copies of Superstar were recalled and the film was banned. Now, watching Superstar is an illicit act — of course, this plays perfectly into the queer scheme of things. In even attempting to engage with this film, to witness the Karen Carpenter story, you become a partner in crime. Getting underneath the cover image to the deeply upsetting story behind it becomes a little bit more improper.

This is the other way in which Superstar is difficult to watch. Though it’s easy enough to find a bootleg copy of the film online, it will be a degraded VHS transfer that has passed through many generations. The image is fuzzy, the sound uneven, the text hard to read. It takes work to make sense of this film, to fully understand what you are looking at. There could hardly be a more fitting way to watch Superstar; ultimately, that’s why it’s worth watching. It doesn’t fully lampoon the biopic genre, but embraces its rare potential to examine a life. It’s done critically, sympathetically and with a demand from the viewer to take responsibility for their role in the story, too.

Joel Blackledge is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in the UK. Say hi on Twitter at @thegreatdamfino