A plea to release ''Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story'' -- Our movie critic explains why Todd Haynes' portrayal of Karen Carpenter's private struggles should be made public

By Owen Gleiberman
April 26, 1991 at 04:00 AM EDT

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

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Dear Richard Carpenter,

Will you please allow people to see Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story? As it stands, this 43-minute masterpiece, which uses a cast of Barbie dolls to dramatize your sister’s fatal struggle with anorexia, can’t legally be shown. That’s because you hold the rights to the many Carpenters songs that are featured in it. I can see why you might want the movie under wraps. You probably think that it’s some sort of exploitative joke, and that you personally don’t come off that well in it. (Let’s be honest: You don’t.) Yet I’m convinced that this is one of the most startling, audacious, and sheerly emotional films of the past decade.

Let me explain. In Superstar, Barbie dolls are used to suggest the perfectionist standards of beauty that are part of what drive women to anorexia. That aside, the movie is written and directed — shot for shot — exactly like a live-action film, so that in five minutes you practically forget you’re watching dolls. With devastating candor, Haynes reveals that Karen’s anorexia was, in fact, an addiction, a ghastly series of rituals with which she destroyed herself. He demonstrates how everyone around her, including you, tried to save her, and how the addiction finally won out. Yet the movie is more than a case study: It’s also a supreme tribute to the music that you and Karen created. Haynes counterpoints Karen’s private horror with the rapt beauty of her singing — the melancholy warmth and smoothness that turned songs like ”Rainy Days and Mondays” into soft-pop epiphanies.

By putting the light and dark sides of Karen Carpenter together, Superstar, like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, says something powerful and haunting about America — about a place where an existence this tragic could fuel music with so much soulfulness and grace. Todd Haynes has turned Karen Carpenter’s life into a singular work of art. Even for those who never cared about the Carpenters’ music (but especially for those who did), it deserves to be seen.


Owen Gleiberman

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

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