50 greatest music films ever

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1

Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story

(Todd Haynes,1987)
Not to be confused with the distinctly ropey TV movie, ‘The Karen Carpenter Story’, which emerged two years later, this is Todd Haynes’ version of the fragile American singer’s story – told with emaciated Barbie dolls, archive footage, fake talking heads and ample, unauthorised use of The Carpenters’ music. If all this sounds a little mocking, even distasteful, for the story of a young woman whose fame and success contributed to her early death from anorexia, the important thing to stress is that Haynes walks an interesting tightrope between irony and sincerity with ‘Superstar’. Certainly, there’s an element of wink-wink knowingness and satire to this extraordinary and inventive film, but his target is never Karen Carpenter. Rather, Haynes has in his sights the hackneyed machinery with which so many filmmakers, reporters and documentarists deal with the troubled lives of artists. Indeed, Carpenter herself emerges as a sympathetic figure, the tragic heroine of the piece. The music, too, is treated with the utmost respect: the live scenes are often very moving, made even more powerful by the stillness of the dolls apparently performing The Carpenters’ songs. Formally, it’s definitely an odd experiment, but as a biographer, Haynes grapples with the essence of his subject in a linear, even traditional fashion. The sadness of Carpenter’s story is never lost along the way.The film begins with a grainy, black-and white sequence in which Karen Carpenter’s mother finds her dead daughter – a Barbie doll wrapped in sheets – on the floor of the family home. A portentous voiceover then kicks in over the opening-credits to the tune of The Carpenters’ hit ‘Superstar’ and a shot of a pretty suburban home. ‘Why, at the age of 32, was this smooth-voiced girl from Downey, California, who led a raucous nation smoothly into the ’70s, found dead in her parents’ home? Let’s go back,’ drawls a laconic, male voice. Intriguingly, the opening of the more orthodox TV movie is almost identical: we watch as Carpenter’s mother discovers her daughter’s body, and it’s then that both films lunge into the past. The focus of Haynes’ film is Carpenter’s anorexia and he doesn’t deal lightly with the subject, promising, via a block of text on the screen, ‘an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity’.‘Superstar’ is a genuine horror movie. The flesh creeps when the A&M Records boss signs Richard and Karen with a lugubrious ‘We’re a real family here at A&M.’ That scene is cut with footage of the Holocaust and ends with a body being thrown into a pit: the open arms of celebrity beckon for Karen. The scenes of Carpenter with her family are creepy too: her brother is portrayed as a control-freak, while her parents come across as domineering. ‘What are you trying to do? Ruin both our careers?’ is Richard’s chilling response to his sister’s illness.The chances of Haynes’ 43-minute film ever getting a legal release were pretty slim. Not only did he use The Carpenters’ music without the family’s permission but there’s nothing sympathetic about his treatment of Karen’s brother and his parents, Agnes and Harold. It’s been suggested, too, that Mattel considered taking legal action over the use of the Barbie dolls in the film. But there was no need: Richard Carpenter got there first. He sued Haynes in 1990 and won, which meant all copies of the film were recalled. The only way to see it now is by Googling it on the internet. Dave CalhounGreatest hit When Carpenter collapses during a performance of ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’. Who would have thought a Barbie doll could be so moving?Top 50 index | 50-41 | 40-31 | 30-21 | 20-11 | 10-6 | 5-1

Author: Dave Calhoun. Written by Derek Adams, Geoff Andrew, Dave Calhoun, Wally Hammond, Michael Hodges, Martin Horsfield, Martin Hoyle, David Jenkins, Trevor Johnston, Eddy Lawrence, Sharon O'Connell, Chris Parkin, Graeme Thomson, Peter Watts

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