Fame, Fear and Family: Revisiting Haynes' banned 1987 short


Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

Elliot Leavy

Todd Haynes isn't a director who needs an introduction. Pioneer of the New Queer Movement and director of Poison (1991), Safe (1995), and Carol (2015), Haynes has always explored the twisted nature of perception and championed subversion in order to tear down societal and film tropes.

Prior to his accolades and recognition. Haynes, three years after Karen Carpenter died of anorexia-related causes in 1984 and whilst still completing his Master of Fine Arts at Bard College, released his depiction of the rise and fall of Karen Carpenter with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987). Thirty years later, the short film still raises the spectre of the insidious and impossible nature of child stardom and remains one of the most tell-tale portrayals of anorexia to ever hit the screen.

Part of the opening title sequence.

Part of the opening title sequence.

Detailing the turning points of Karen's life from 1966 onward, the 43-minute documentary uses a myriad of techniques to tell the tragic tale of life under the spotlight. Opening with an Orsen Welles-esque narration, the film begins with a first person view of Karen's mother Agnes discovering her daughter's body. The film then goes on to showcase Karen's life using a combination of Barbie dolls, intermittent real-world footage, and some of Carpenters' greatest hits (alongside some other 70s tunes you'll be happy to hear).

After proving a minor art hit at several festivals, the film was (and still is) banned due to brother and bandmate Richard Carpenter suing for the unauthorised use of Carpenters' music – an action most likely set about due to the film's insinuation that Richard was gay, controlling, and an altogether unsympathetic elder brother. However, by 1989 when the film was banned, Richard was married to his female first cousin – proving without doubt that he was both nice to his relatives and indeed straight.

Carpenters Rainy Days and Mondays (1971)

Haynes puts great detail into his model settings (to-scale medicine labels and posters abundant) and uses Barbie dolls to reflect how Karen was only 16 when she was signed alongside her brother to A&M. The Barbie dolls also serve as a masterful critique of American pop culture and throughout the film, Haynes makes a clear nod to the impossible stereotypes that these dolls force upon society by slowly whittling away Karen's doll as her anorexia takes over.

Montaged overlays of informative text explaining anorexia (a very underreported condition at the time) populate the film, supported by brilliant sound editing and snippets of information that help explain different periods of Karen's life in quick succession. Flashes of stock Vietnam War footage sporadically punctuate certain scenes, echoing the fear flooding her own psyche and contrasting to her 'clean-cut image' and 'All-American' familial setting – much like the Vietnam War itself.

Left: Vietnam War | Right: All-American Family.

Left: Vietnam War | Right: All-American Family.

The Carpenter family are depicted as a group of controlling, power-hungry, pious individuals. And the film puts a direct emphasis on their role in Karen's advancement into anorexia, explaining how many sufferers often come from overly controlled backgrounds. This is point hammered home during the eerie dreamscape scene, a nightmarish part of the film filled with their voices and a recurring shot of Karen being spanked as an adult.

Overall, in just 43 minutes, Haynes manages to put together a cohesive, informative and a truly excellent piece of cinema. It is, in my opinion, up there with Martin Scorsese's The Big Shave when it comes to the best and most experimental of Student film. With no official versions of this piece of cinematic history available, its low-fi aesthetic is enhanced by the bootleg copy's grainy quality, giving this documentary a ghost-like and secretive quality that just adds more to the intrigue felt throughout. Most importantly – just as it did at when it was first released, it helps spread awareness of anorexia and how even a superstar such as Karen Carpenter can be consumed by the black hole that is celebrity culture. 

Ten years later in 1997, the Barbie analogy is used once more by Danish Europop group Aqua, who took the analogy in a different direction. They too were sued, this time by toy manufacturer Mattel. Fortunately, the case was thrown out after the judge decreed that, "The parties are advised to chill." cementing his place on the right side of history.