Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
Pop music in films changes not only the tone of the film, but also the movie-watchers understanding of the music itself. If this wasn’t the case, Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story would be one of the worst uses of pop excess, even challenging the infamous Xanadu. Providing a proto-Behind the Music dramatization of The Carpenters story, Superstar is laced with a veritable grab-bag of the group’s critically reviled hits. But by the end, it also becomes a useful case study for how movies can conversely accentuate key themes and emotions within the pop song.
About 20 minutes into Vanilla Sky, I realized the use of pop music in a movie couldn’t necessarily make it better. Even as Cameron Crowe knocked out a juicy selection of pop’s recent touching songs, neither the film nor the music was bettered by this wedding. Instead, moments like the suicide attempt in Royal Tenenbaums accompanied by “Needle in the Hay” or the bicycle-tomfoolery in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head,” achieve a magical quality that failed Crowe. These movie moments are changed by their use of pop music, and the pop music is similarly changed by the visual association. But while tasteful pop music is often recognized in films to enhance the movie’s themes, confining directors and films to living off Rolling Stones b-sides could be inadequate measure of how pop music can be inspired within film.
Superstar is a case in point. Counter to the no-fi aesthetic found by Haynes’ use of Barbie Dolls as the principal actors, Superstar’s score plays out with a crisp and clean delirium. The music provides the tragic backbone for Karen Carpenter’s fall into anorexia nervosa. And, because of the movie’s reliance on The Carpenter’s music, coupled with the unflattering portrayal of Richard Carpenter, you’ll never be able to rent it from Blockbuster. While Superstar opened to considerable attention on the film festival circuit when released in 1987, Richard Carpenter blocked the distribution of the movie—on the non-copyright usage of the Carpenter's songs. As such, the movie’s innovative use of music was also its demise.
A dramatization of The Carpenters’ fall sounds like the makings of a TV movie, but Haynes uses the story as an incisive launch-point to engage in serious issues of body image within contemporary society. The whimsical and kitschy songs of The Carpenters provides a surprisingly appropriate complement to the movie’s selection of images. Like the faces of Barbie Dolls, the blank messages of The Carpenters’ songs are given a new voice. While not apparent at first, Haynes finds a power in his take on Brecht’s alienation effect. The Carpenter’s music not only provides a strange document of the pair’s private struggles in Superstar, but also appears to openly contradict it. The viewer is instead forced to evaluate the words of the music, given the torrent of internalized images. It’s within this constant barrage of imagery, based less on upholding the illusion of reality, that The Carpenter’s music can finally be displayed as more than radio fodder.
Haynes balances in both fictional and documentary styles as he engages in body image issues, mixing Barbie re-enactments with footage of news events surrounding The Carpenters’ story. Included is the crowning of Miss America of 1970, Pam Eklred. While used as a primer before The Carpenter’s popularity in the film, the nod plays as a nice joke when used as an introduction for “Close to You” sequence within Superstar. The use of Eldred’s image posits mayhem associated with body image as the beauty queen had to be evacuated to safety while entertaining soldiers (an event commemorated in Apocalypse Now). When placed together with “Close to You”, the song’s innocent romantic notions of love and attraction are re-worked. Haynes gives physicality to these emotions, forcing The Carpenter’s music to be evaluated in terms of how these emotions play out within society.
This parallel between “Close to You” and society continues with the montage of the song. While the song’s idyllic lyrics sound out of place during any period of time, the song’s montage appropriately follows The Carpenter’s rise to fame. Haynes pairs the prototypical ��success’ shots with footage of Cambodian bombing missions. The effect is chilling. Against the banal lyrics of “Sprinkled moon dust in your hair of gold / And starlight in your eyes of blue”, and a plodding piano line, Haynes uses a Bruce Connor music-image associative technique to give the mish-mash of Barbies and Vietnam a dizzying effect. Rather than sweet delicate nothings, Karen’s voice sounds bare and disturbingly calm. Introduced as a “smooth-voiced girl from Downey, California, who lead a raucous nation smoothly into the Seventies", her deep alto twists the words from their innocuous origins into a deeply satirical context when juxtaposed against America’s divide on Vietnam.
Haynes uses a similar device for his visual rendering of “On Top of the World”. Beginning with a rotating world, and graphically matched onto a disco ball, the song’s buoyant thrust quickly dissipates into a barrage of Ex-Lax, salads and ice tea. Mimicking Superstar’s narration, describing an anorexic’s “reward or high which accompanies and rewards her denial of food”, “On Top of the World” is transformed from an iconography of the fleeting into the profoundly disturbing. Like the repeated shot of Karen stepping onto a scale, marking her fall into anorexia, the song’s whimsical love is materialized into a confronting assessment, the music becoming an expression of the disease’s complicated nature.
With each musical sequence, Haynes strengthens the idea that The Carpenters music carries layers of irony, with overly produced and manufactured sound becoming a metaphor for the misunderstandings of Karen’s family toward her troubles. With every gleeful and hopeful tinkering piano melody through Superstar, Karen Carpenter’s deep voice sounds further and further out of place. Songs like “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “This Masquerade” cement this concept, with melancholy vocals that are only glossed over in the musical arrangements, culminating in Karen’s cardiac arrest. As the stew of Carpenter’s songs blur together, the layered sullen wails of Karen are set against a barrage of insipid minor melodies.
Superstar challenges the reading of The Carpenter’s music. For the criticisms of The Carpenters, (such as using a manipulatively smooth sound—noted by a music critic midway through the movie), Haynes provides enough compassion for Karen Carpenter to complicate superficial readings. In her sultry and deep voice, Haynes re-imagines the romantic tales of Karen. Instilling an irony into songs that carry no literal weight, Superstar reinvigorates The Carpenter’s music, which is no small feat.
Because Superstar can not be legally sold, the easiest way to get a copy of the movie is through www.illegal-art.org. Not that we’d ever condone such a thing.
By: Nate De Young
Published on: 2004-08-03