For a film made almost entirely with “Barbie-sized dolls”, Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story has surprising humanity. In a sentence, the film follows the life of musician Karen Carpenter, from the beginning of her singing career to her death by ipecac poisoning on February 4, 1983. It packs a lot into its 43-minute runtime, flirting with semiotic theory, musical, historical satire, mockumentary, fan tribute, eating disorder pedagogy, and horror cinema, to name just a few ideas. It takes the form of a tapestry of repurposed newsreels, staged talking head interviews, campy PSA videos, and of course, doll-sized dramatizations of Carpenter’s turbulent life. Haynes called the film a docudrama at times, and Barbara Kruger laughingly called it a “doll-u-drama” in her early Artforum review. The genre is up for debate if it has one at all, but Haynes’ film is most often lumped in with the experimental documentary tradition, which is the most interesting forum to examine it within.
In many ways, Superstar is cinema’s most deft exploration of the female celebrity experience – one that resists totalizing, over-determining, and mapping preconceived narratives onto the unfolding of events. In stark contrast with the current spate of celebrity documentaries from the past few years, Superstar stands alone as a pinnacle of storytelling ingenuity.
Part of Superstar’s eternal allure is its infamy and elusivity, due to its short-lived public life and eventual banning. Todd Haynes made the film as an MFA student at Bard College, and it enjoyed a successful run in the downtown New York experimental film circuit. But it wasn’t long before Richard Carpenter caught wind of Superstar and served up three cease and desist letters for unauthorized usage of The Carpenters’ music. The film was subsequently removed from circulation and forced underground, where it quickly established itself as cult favorite in illicit group screenings. The film became a bootleg classic, and it became common practice to make VHS copies of the originals, copies of those copies, and so on. Eventually, it was quietly resold in DVD format before being digitally transferred and uploaded to the Internet. Today Superstar exists as the perfect simulacrum, as a film that does not exist in its original form or quality And as the film has lived on through a chain of hasty duplications, its integrity only continued to degrade. Almost every copy represents a worsened reproduction, with lower audiovisual quality than its parent copy. It is a film that has truly been loved to pieces by its fanbase.
Locating a copy of Superstar to view is a unique challenge in and of itself. At present, you can watch it on Youtube with Portuguese subtitles, on Dailymotion with frequent interruptions by DiGiorno pizza commercials, and on the Internet Archive. Of the four or so YouTube uploads, at least two appear to be uploads of the same mother copy. On them, the VHS is oversaturated and the characters look hyperreal, scattered, and degraded. Still, Karen’s melancholy contralto cuts through all the noise,