What I'm Watching: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story | Live Culture

What I'm Watching: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story


The first time I saw Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, it was on a ninth-generation VHS tape that one of my college film-nerd friends had dug up somewhere. Upon recently rewatching it for the first time in 20 years (thanks for the heads-up, Bobby!), I found it even more thought-provoking than I did when I was one of those film nerds. OK, I’m still a film nerd.

Superstar is famous for two things. It was effectively banned by a court order (about which more below), and it uses Barbie dolls as its main “actors.” The dolls are not animated, but are operated, with deliberate crudeness, as puppets, manipulated by unseen hands in real time as the camera rolls.

It’s a decision that was born in part of director Todd Haynes’ small budget and lack of access to official historical footage, but it’s also a brilliant piece of social commentary. This 1987 film was ahead of its time in railing against the unrealistic body-image standards to which young women in many Western cultures are held. By using the famously disproportionate dolls as his main characters, Haynes found a clever, tragic way to represent the psychological trauma that Karen Carpenter endured in her ultimately fatal struggle with anorexia. Harrowingly, Haynes whittled down his lead “actress”’ plastic body to show Carpenter’s losing battle with the disease.

Though it was Richard Carpenter, Karen’s brother and bandmate, who filed the suit that resulted in the film's being removed from circulation, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mattel Corporation, trademark owners of Barbie, were not a little upset about the film, too. Superstar is, to me, as much a film about Barbie — and everything the doll stands for — as it is a film about Karen Carpenter.

It was Carpenter who relegated the film to the semi-underground channels it has occupied for nearly 30 years. Yet how “banned” is a film that can be called up for instant viewing by anyone with access to YouTube?
Richard Carpenter’s litigiousness was ultimately no match for the libertarian approach to media-sharing that governs many of the internet’s seamier domains. Superstar is now more accessible than it’s ever been. However, this now-legendary film still exists only in severely compromised form. The image quality on YouTube is no better than that on the battered VHS tape that introduced me to this film. In fact, the image quality of the internet version is almost surely worse, as digital artifacts now overlay their analog counterparts. In its current online version, Superstar is a murky, pixelated mess. It would be wonderful to see this groundbreaking cult film in the cleaned-up, restored version that it deserves.

Ironically, it was an artist — Richard Carpenter — who initiated the legal action against the film. If art is about anything, it’s about free expression, but Carpenter clearly didn’t feel that way. To be fair, there were, as I understand it, two factors in Carpenter’s initiating the case. First, he objected to the manner in which he and his family were portrayed in the film — not just because they are represented by plastic dolls that imply a certain lifeless quality to the band and their music, but because the film, in a single line of dialogue, insinuates that Richard Carpenter is gay. I have no information about Richard Carpenter’s sexuality, but I will opine that he certainly seems to have a thin skin.

The other, more prosecutable, objection that the Carpenter family had to Superstar was that Haynes did not pay for the rights to use the band’s songs in the movie. This charge is clearer-cut and accurate. (Nor did Haynes pay the licensing fees for the film’s use of songs by Elton John, the Love Unlimited Orchestra or others.) Haynes should have known better, because American copyright law was then and is now a clusterfuck of a system that favors rights holders, not independent artists. It seems clear that Richard Carpenter would never have granted Haynes permission to use his band’s music in the film, but above-board practice dictates that a good-faith effort be made, or that the filmmaker simply find other songs whose rights holders grant permission for use.

Of course, Haynes could not have made a meaningful movie about the Carpenters without highlighting the band’s music. One of the film’s implicit arguments is that the Carpenters’ music — lovely, sickly-sweet, yet infused with a strong current of melancholy — is reflective of Karen Carpenter’s personality. Moreover, Haynes finds in the songs’ tragic beauty an avenue for social commentary about unrealistic female body-image standards. The Carpenters songs on the film’s soundtrack are the aural equivalent of the use of Barbie dolls as the main characters. Both the music and the dolls evoke a sort of false beauty, or a beauty undercut by sorrow and tragedy.
In this sense, Haynes was spot-on in using Carpenters songs on Superstar’s soundtrack. It made perfect artistic sense, if poor legal sense.

Though such speculation is impossible to prove, I’d wager that the de facto banning of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story granted the film a cultural currency and significance that it would not otherwise have had. The film now lives on the internet, which means it has been duplicated, archived and screened countless times. I hesitate to say that a film’s online availability means that it will enjoy an eternal digital life, but let’s just say that the internet is getting bigger, not smaller, and that it has room for plenty of moving images.

And it’s still the Wild West out there, at least in terms of copyrights. Whoever uploaded this particular version of Superstar to YouTube neither was the first nor will be the last to do so. That person published the film under a “Standard YouTube License,” which, as I understand it, means that anyone can upload anything, but if a copyright holder files an infringement complaint with YouTube, the video in question will be yanked tout de suite.

Though it’s hardly unusual, this situation is worth noting. A film that was effectively banned for its use of unlicensed music was posted to a massive, Google-owned website by someone who (presumably) had no legal right to do so. And the songs on the film’s soundtrack are still there, in all their unlicensed glory.

In a strictly legal sense, Richard Carpenter won his case against Haynes, and I don’t imagine the filmmaker has ever made any money from Superstar. Yet, in every other sense, Carpenter lost his case. Superstar survives, and with a strong reputation as a pathbreaking cult film. And the internet doesn’t seem to care much about hosting videos that may contain unlicensed sonic or visual content. The only thing the lawsuit prevented was the ability of Haynes to earn money from his art, and for that, in my opinion, Richard Carpenter should be ashamed.

Superstar includes three brief interviews with people who, between them, espouse the most salient (and not necessarily overlapping) arguments about the Carpenters: that their music has a particular Nixon-era vanilla flavor; that they were actually more musically talented and interesting than we might think; and that they are musical and perhaps political reactionaries who are not to be trusted.

I don’t care much for the Carpenters’ music, but I’ll admit that I found myself singing along with “Rainy Days and Mondays” when it came up in Superstar. They certainly had gifts for smoothness and melody, and one can’t fault them for drawing inspiration from the works of the great Burt Bacharach. Yet one interviewee’s comment that she “never trusted” the Carpenters really stuck with me. In stifling the creativity of a fellow artist, Richard Carpenter proved himself, indeed, to be untrustworthy.