With the Pacific Cinematheque roughly half way through their Velvet Goldmine series, highlighting the varied films of director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I’m Not There), it seems like a good time to talk about Haynes’ first film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. The film has unfortunately been left out of the Cinematheque’s canonisation, but that’s probably because it’s nearly impossible to find a copy of it anywhere. Aside from eBay (sometimes), there’s no actual way to purchase the film in any format, and prior to the internet, the only way to ever see the thing was in film school, if you were lucky and had a professor who thought it was important enough to screen (rare).
On the surface, Superstar probably seems like an odd film for Haynes to kick off his career with. It’s basically just a short biopic about Karen Carpenter, one half of the smooth singing sibling soft-rock outfit from the ’70s, The Carpenters. You know, the “Baby baby baby baby oh baby, I love you” Carpenters. Here’s a short summary: She was pretty, she was talented, she became popular, she became anorexic, she became addicted to laxatives, she became deceased. A tragic story.
But Haynes — being the mental case that he is — takes this tragedy and turns it into a truly awkward comedy with one incredible creative decision: No actors are used in the film. Instead, the entire story is played out with the aide of Barbie dolls. Karen is a Barbie (a brunette, of course), her brother is a Ken doll, and every other character in the film is also some kind of Barbie. The comedy arises from the fact that these Barbies are dealing with anorexia and laxative addiction, and presented in the Haynes’s signature, excruciatingly melodramatic manner. Just imagine a distraught Barbie dropping a bottle of liquid laxative into the sink in anguish, and then slowly lowering her head, sobbing into her plastic, lifeless hands. It’s hilarious.