Earlier this year, Entertainment Weekly put out a special list of the Top 100 Cult Movies of All Time. Or at least these were the films which the EW bunch thought were cool cult movies. Most of the choices were predictable, more than a few were fairly silly, but one stood out since it was the only film which attained cult status strictly because it can only be seen via bootleg video: Todd Haynes’ 1987 45-minutes offering “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.”

By now, most everyone is aware of the story behind the story: Haynes made this student film using Barbie dolls in lieu of a human cast and misappropriated the music of the Carpenters plus clips from 1970s film and TV classics for this nasty-funny biopic on the rise and fall of Karen Carpenter. What few people don’t realize is that Haynes got away with this blatant disregard for copyright-protected material for two solid years, during which time “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” was a sold-out favorite on the global film festival circuit and even scored several first-run theatrical engagements (which is no mean feat for a film of that length). By 1989, however, Haynes saw his gravy train derailed as Richard Carpenter and the Mattel Corp. (the good folks behind Barbie) got their respective lawyers to do the old strong arm routine, thus yanking the film out of circulation.

For many years, Haynes attempted to negotiate an equitable solution that would put his film back in circulation and allow it the opportunity to have a proper home video release. Yet neither Richard Carpenter nor the Mattel Corp. have yielded. Quite frankly, you cannot blame them. Richard Carpenter is depicted as a closeted homosexual who slave-drove his anorexic sister into poor health, while the dolls in the film are engaged in behavior one generally does not associate with Barbie (physical and psychological abuse, starvation, excess laxative consumption, and performing syrupy-sticky pop tunes while watching “The Poseidon Adventure” on TV).

Since being banished from release, Haynes’ film can only be viewed via bootleg videos. But in a way, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” is the ultimate bootleg must-have. Its “banned” status has given it a level of notoriety that none of Haynes’ subsequent films ever enjoyed. People want to see this film because they’re technically not supposed to see it. The retro interest in the Carpenters has also helped dramatically. By the time of her death, Karen Carpenter’s star had seriously waned, and even by the time Haynes first showed his film the Carpenters were viewed as 70s kitsch. Yet for better or worse, a belated revived interest in the duo’s music has deified Karen Carpenter with other doomed pop and rock icons who willfully destroyed their bodies and spirit when the pressures of stardom proved too heavy to burden.

But truth be told, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” is not a special film. The novelty of the all-doll cast is equivalent to the novelty of the all-midget cast from the 1938 comedy Western “The Terror of Tiny Town”–it is jolting at first, but once you get beyond the peculiar on-screen demographics, the film becomes fairly routine quickly and is your typical show biz rags-to-riches-to-ruin tale. This is pretty much the equivalent of any “Behind the Music” episode, except that all dramatic recreations use dolls instead of people.

However, the idea of making a comic film out of an insecure woman starving herself to death is, to put it mildly, in horrible taste. The film gets mileage out of depicting the anorexic Karen as a ravaged Barbie doll, which may be funny to some, but seems uncommonly mean-spirited given the genuine pain and suffering that Karen went through in her latter years. The assault on decency committed by this film is obviously one of its major attractions.

As for the music, the film does score in providing a juxtaposition of placing the heavy-on-the-sugar Carpenters tunes in context against an imploding American society of the early 1970s. The film challenges the notion of the Carpenters as offering either a bland escapism from a troubled era or a willful refusal to acknowledge a country committing military obscenity in Indochina while turning a blind eye to domestic abuses from the Nixon White House (ol’ Tricky Dick was a big fan of the Carpenters and had them entertain at a state dinner). Even by the standards of the time, their music seemed totally blinkered to the world around them.

To date, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” cannot be officially presented in any venue. But this has not stopped Haynes from showing the film, albeit without fully announcing its presence on a film bill. During the past year, the film has turned up in several festivals under the heading of Todd Haynes’ early films; it is not identified by title, but it is hinted at as a special bonus and only the truly dumb will be unable to guess which film is being presented. At the recent Provincetown Film Festival, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” was shown to a sold-out crowd and Haynes and producer Christine Vachon made surprise appearances.

Of all of the films currently in the Bootleg Files, this is the least likely to emerge any time in the near future. At least not until Richard Carpenter and the Mattel Corp. either obtain unusually generous senses of humor or expire from the face of the Earth. Until such time, the bootleg orbit is the only place where poor little Barbie-Karen can starve herself into pop star Heaven while warbling “I’m on the top of the world, looking down at the creation…”


IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on October 24, 2003 in Features by

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