RIP Russ Meyer
Q: Movie Dude, is the rumor true that you watched a bootlegged, low-fidelity, low-quality copy of a movie starring several Barbie dolls renacting the rise and fall of a 70's pop-icon?
A: Um, yes.
Q: Movie Dude, did somebody slip insanity sauce onto your daily dish of catnip?
A: Don't knock the catnip....it helps my suffering pass easier. And I haven't touched my dolls in months.
"Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," an early film from noted director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Safe, The Velvet Goldmine) indeed plays like a combo platter Behind The Music-cum-anorexia documentary about the struggles Karen Carpenter endured with the eating disorder during her heydey as part of the successful recording act The Carpenters (along with her brother Richard)...using dolls. OK....that will be the last time I say that sarcastically, because, dolls or not, this truly is a creative and effecting film verifying its status as one of Entertainment Weekly's Top 50 Cult Films (It is hard to find and not available commercially...if I remembered the bootleg DVD site that this copy came from, I'd post it here, not that I condone that stuff).
The film's economic (it's only 45 minutes long) rise and fall arc is similar to and almost as effective to that of many similar films told over a period of time in the protagonist's life (Boogie Nights, Goodfellas, Sweet Dreams, La Bamba, etc., etc.) by employing similar techniques. Most importantly is the set and costume desgn which easily let us know that time has passed and also where we are in the 70's or 80's. For example, Karen opens the film as a teenager with a long, large flowing brunette mane; much later in the film we see her hair cropped short; her costumes get more elegant as she gains fame and you can also actually see her face age and wither as she gets sick. Haynes also gets excellent readings out of his voiceover talent. What intrigues more is the sheer creativity that shines through the piece. On an obvious low budget, Haynes conveys a wide ranges of his characters' emotions and their physical motions through quick intercuts and stock footage...none of which is overdone or wasted. Necessity is the motherhood of invention.
What I also found engaging is the factual treatment of anorexia, its causes and possible solutions and how it interacted with Carpenter's story. The film is peppered with info-mercial type intercuts (away from doll-time) that offer bits and bites of basic facts about the disease...presented in an engaging fashion. Meanwhile, for many celebrities, the trappings of fame mean new people in your life, all trying to get a piece of you and pushing you into bad things...drugs, crime, whatnot (at least that's wat tv, movies and tell-all books have taught me). In Karen's case, it was food, or maintaining what she felt was a positive body-image as a celebrity in a highly image-concious society. There's a scene early in the film during her rise to fame where her mother makes her wear a tighter dress then she wants too. Indeed, this scene of familial pressure bears out into Karen's obsession with her weight and self-image. It is the frustrations and quick fix attitude of the controlling family enviroment, I also learned, that enables and prevents an anorexic from coming to grips with their affliction and onto the road to recovery. The usage of dolls to play the roles in the film, underscore an anorexic's distorted self-image.
It seems that Todd Haynes has a thing in his films for presenting a characters and situation where seemingly happy, normal outside appearances mask larger ugly problems. Take, for example, the supposed perfect suburban housewives Julianne Moore plays in Safe and Far From Now mask larger, affecting social issues (Moore's character's enviromental exhaustion in Safe and her husband's homosexual activity in Far From Heaven). In Superstar, Karen Carpenter seemed to have it all: a family that loved her, her head on her shoulders and a very successful career as a recording artist. But behind that squeaky clean-teen image lied a darker secret that reared its ugly head.
Recommended for the hard-core (due to low availability & technical limitations).