In praise of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Over 30 years later, Todd Haynes’ experimental documentary remains a visionary look at female celebrity.


Nick Joyner

For a film made almost entirely with “Barbie-sized dolls”, Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story has surprising humanity. In a sentence, the film follows the life of musician Karen Carpenter, from the beginning of her singing career to her death by ipecac poisoning on February 4, 1983. It packs a lot into its 43-minute runtime, flirting with semiotic theory, musical, historical satire, mockumentary, fan tribute, eating disorder pedagogy, and horror cinema, to name just a few ideas. It takes the form of a tapestry of repurposed newsreels, staged talking head interviews, campy PSA videos, and of course, doll-sized dramatizations of Carpenter’s turbulent life. Haynes called the film a docudrama at times, and Barbara Kruger laughingly called it a “doll-u-drama” in her early Artforum review. The genre is up for debate if it has one at all, but Haynes’ film is most often lumped in with the experimental documentary tradition, which is the most interesting forum to examine it within.

In many ways, Superstar is cinema’s most deft exploration of the female celebrity experience – one that resists totalizing, over-determining, and mapping preconceived narratives onto the unfolding of events. In stark contrast with the current spate of celebrity documentaries from the past few years, Superstar stands alone as a pinnacle of storytelling ingenuity.

Part of Superstar’s eternal allure is its infamy and elusivity, due to its short-lived public life and eventual banning. Todd Haynes made the film as an MFA student at Bard College, and it enjoyed a successful run in the downtown New York experimental film circuit. But it wasn’t long before Richard Carpenter caught wind of Superstar and served up three cease and desist letters for unauthorized usage of The Carpenters’ music. The film was subsequently removed from circulation and forced underground, where it quickly established itself as cult favorite in illicit group screenings. The film became a bootleg classic, and it became common practice to make VHS copies of the originals, copies of those copies, and so on. Eventually, it was quietly resold in DVD format before being digitally transferred and uploaded to the Internet. Today Superstar exists as the perfect simulacrum, as a film that does not exist in its original form or quality And as the film has lived on through a chain of hasty duplications, its integrity only continued to degrade. Almost every copy represents a worsened reproduction, with lower audiovisual quality than its parent copy. It is a film that has truly been loved to pieces by its fanbase.

Locating a copy of Superstar to view is a unique challenge in and of itself. At present, you can watch it on Youtube with Portuguese subtitles, on Dailymotion with frequent interruptions by DiGiorno pizza commercials, and on the Internet Archive. Of the four or so YouTube uploads, at least two appear to be uploads of the same mother copy. On them, the VHS is oversaturated and the characters look hyperreal, scattered, and degraded. Still, Karen’s melancholy contralto cuts through all the noise, clear as day. There is one copy that is noticeably different, with grayed colors and more pronounced static hiss. One can only imagine what divergent path it took before arriving on Youtube.

And what of the bootleg viewing experience? Depending on who you ask, it could be a frustrating or freeing one. At times, it feels as though you’re looking through a filter; that there is a physical and aesthetic distance placed between you and the dolls. Film academic Lucas Hilderbrand, the foremost expert on all things Superstar, writes that the experience of watching Superstar is a “constant negotiation of one’s own perceptual attention,” as you’re forced to decide whether to focus on the action itself or the visual distortion and jumbled audio. On another level, there is perhaps no better way to narrativize and visualize the trauma of anorexia than through a film that is physically deteriorating itself. This cinematic deresolution complements Karen’s own wasting away on screen. The audiovisual information falls away and so does Karen’s body.

But of course, we are not dealing with Karen’s real body or even a straightforward human representation therein. From the outset, Haynes understood the challenges that come with making a film about the life of Karen Carpenter; that is, representing death, anorexia, and celebrity. His decision to use a plastic doll sidesteps many of these concerns, or exposes their problems nonetheless. In a 1989 Film Threat interview, Haynes explained that he wanted to “provoke the same kind of identification and investment in the narrative as any real movie would,” hoping that “this emotional involvement in dolls or something completely artificial” would force audiences to reflect on their own character identifications. Karen as a plastic actress portrays actions that human Karen Carpenter might have embodied in some real sense but did not actually enact in front of a camera. As a Barbie, she becomes rife with speculative and suggestive properties that would not be afforded to a human actor.

The figure of the doll is a very generative object. In the case of Karen in Superstar, she becomes many things: a poster child for anorexia, a cautionary tale,, a grown woman with little control over her own life, and a figure controlled by media narratives of herself. As a real celebrity, Karen was an object to be consumed. Fans watched her grow thinner between TV appearances and concerts, as they speculated about her disordered eating. In multiple scenes in Superstar, Karen sits in front of the TV watching herself perform. In one moment she even exclaims, “I looked really fat!” It’s comical to see a Barbie doll – whose anatomical improbability has long been a subject of criticism – complain about her weight. But Haynes soon knocks the wind out of the moment, carving out Karen’s cheeks and petite figure as the film progresses to replicate her descent into disordered eating..

Superstar is enduringly effective because of the way that it dramatizes, deconstructs, and refashions the celebrity documentary genre. Much of the film is speculative reenactments or fabricated conversations mapped onto a general timeline of Karen’s career and illness. There are moments, for example, in which Haynes intuits that Karen’s brother Richard is gay and that their parents were abusive. At other turns, there are inexplicable scenes of a doll being spanked. Presented without explanation, these scenes inject ambiguity into Karen’s life, hinting to the audience that there are things about Karen that we will never really know. In this way, it breaks with documentary narrative conventions that seek to paint tidy, linear pictures of our favorite celebrities and explain away all the nuance of their lives.

In the past few years alone, there has been a dramatic increase in documentaries of this sort, which seek to cash in on the established fanbases of female celebrities and use the unscripted genre for disingenuous purposes.There are films about celebrities like Taylor Swift (Miss Americana), that cede narrative control to the subjects themselves and open the door to uninterrupted PR building. Others like Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil, sell themselves on their unfiltered access that allows celebrities to tell their own stories. And there are the films about emerging starlets like Billie Eilish (The World’s a Little Blurry) and Olivia Rodrigo (Driving Home 2 U) that look to mythologize celebrities who in the past might have been too early into their careers to merit such screen time. Films of this sort are obsessed with the enterprise of star-making – of establishing new dolls to play with.

Although many music documentaries feature celebrities divulging details about their private lives or purport to offer intimate access to fans, others don’t. Some are more prying and speculative, risking exploiting the very people they’re supposed to protect. Features of this sort, like Framing Britney Spears and What Happened Brittany Murphy?, take a magnifying glass to the lives of so-called “troubled women.” Even when they’re purporting to be helpful, they know that audiences love to watch a trainwreck.

In this way, their intention isn’t as important as the appetite that these films feed. At best, they are popular because of the indefatigable public desire to know everything about the inner lives of these women. At their worst, these films are successful because they feed a bloodlust for stories about fallen stars and new celebrities, precarious subjects whose staying power has not yet been established.

As the diametric opposite, Superstar shows us that we never can never know these women fully, and asks us why we might seek to in the first place. And when the film is done playing on your laptop – the only real way you can watch it these days – and it fades to black, you’re left looking at yourself in the reflection, caught in your own gaze. Undoubtedly, video links will be broken, copyrights will be enforced, and the eternal daisy chain of digital facsimiles will continue. The process is eternal and incorruptible. And just like Karen the plastic doll, Superstar will live forever.

Published 8 Apr 2022

Tags: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story Todd Haynes

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