Staying on the Barbie theme (after yesterday’s post about the ban in Iran), one of the most unusual uses of the Mattel dolls was for Todd Hayne’s highly idiosyncratic 1987 bio-pic  Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.

One of my guilty musical pleasures is that I love the songs of The Carpenters. I know that they are the height of kitsch and in many ways reflect the banality of light entertainment but I am always struck by a subtext of sadness beneath the supposedly H-A-P-P-Y veneer of their tunes.

“What I’ve got they used to call the blues”, sings Karen in my favourite song Rainy Days And Mondays composed in 1971 by  Roger Nichols and Paul Williams. With a different arrangement this tune would make very dark folk ballad.

Karen’s voice and phrasing was both natural and genuine, managing to give even the most saccharine of lyrics an emotional resonance.

Of course, it’s tempting to read too much into these lyrics in the same way you retrospectively  find suicidal tendencies in Ian Curtis’ words on  Joy Division records.

Karen Carpenter  came from a tight-knit, highly supportive but over protective family background in Connecticut. She had a morbid and irrational fear of being fat which was exacerbated from being thrust into the limelight after the massive success of her records with brother Richard.  This led to her suffering from anorexia nervosa and she died of heart failure at the age of 32.

Superstar  is a film I’ve read about but never previously seen so I  was happy to chance upon it on Vimeo. Officially, this should not be possible as it remains illegal to screen or sell the film.

It is not so surprising that the film has been blocked from distribution since Haynes used the dolls and songs by The Carpenters songs without permission and presents a less than sympathetic portrayal of Richard Carpenter and Karen’s parents.

You might imagine that the whole concept was a joke but you’d be wrong. The serious intent  of the film is evident from screen captions like the following:

The movie presents a humane perspective on a debilitating and much misunderstood illness and deals with Karen Carpenter’s brief life with real compassion.

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