A portrait of cultural fascism through one individual’s exploitation in “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story”

Todd Haynes, “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story” (1987)

Using Barbie and Ken dolls to play the main characters in miniature sets specially made for this film might seem a pretty perverse way of paying homage to a beloved singer but the ploy turns out to be the master-stroke in Haynes’s loose retelling of Karen Carpenter, singer / drummer of 1970s melodic pop duo the Carpenters. The film is more than a reverent tribute to the singer: it also sneaks in a documentary on the exploitation of women and their bodies to sell a particular product or message and how the music industry co-opts artists into creating a world of bland, unseeing innocence to mask and blot out political reality and dirty tricks. Anorexia nervosa, the disease that killed Karen Carpenter (hereafter referred to as KC), is briefly revealed as a cultural phenomenon in which the physical human body becomes a battleground of control between its owner and those attempting to control the owner herself. The use of dolls to play KC, her family members and other support characters becomes a logical part of the film’s narrative: as KC’s body and talents were used by others to project their ambitions and desires through, so children’s dolls like Barbie become projections for mostly adult fantasies and desires and attempts to teach and direct children into socially appropriate play activities. In contemporary Western culture, the Barbie doll’s body has also become a site for speculation by experts in various fields ranging from health to advertising to child-rearing, often in the context as talking-heads yapping to journalists employed in the commercial media. It becomes impossible to treat Barbie as just another plastic toy.

Haynes picks particular episodes in KC’s life to illustrate the hold that anorexia nervosa had over her; he’s not particular about the exact dates when she commenced her performing career and the onset of the disease. There is in fact no chronology: the narrative plays as one flashback drama and the general direction is straightforward and concentrates almost entirely on KC’s condition. A quick look at her Wikipedia entry shows she began dieting not long after starting to play music seriously in her mid-teens but the two may not be necessarily connected. The characters in the film are very exaggerated and one-sided for effect: KC’s parents are portrayed as ambitious and controlling and Richard as obsessed with fame and sucess, abusive and violent. The film suggests that Richard might be gay but does not mention he was addicted to Quaaludes which originally were prescribed for sleeping problems. The agent at the record label that signs up the duo is Mephistophelean-creepy as he extends his hand (rendered almost claw-like) to KC to clinch the deal.

KC herself tends to be a helpless victim of other people’s manoeuvrings and any resistance on her part is answered by disturbing scenes of spanking. As KC wastes away, the doll takes on a more withered look with abraded plastic skin and her arms and legs erode and drop away.

The film has a home-made, almost shambolic look: captions bleed into images and there are many shots of black-and-white Vietnam War newsreel interspersed into the narrative to ground the biography into its historical context and make clear the suggestion that bands like the Carpenters were part of a culture propaganda offensive on the part of the music industry to inoculate the US public against the country’s extreme violence overseas. The Carpenters’ music including their most popular hits is played throughout the film (Haynes did not get copyright permission to include any music and I doubt he would have got it anyway, given the film’s subject matter) and the soundtrack becomes an ironic counterpoint and comment on parts of the narrative and the film’s agenda: it adds pathos to the pain that KC might have felt while singing the songs. One thing not mentioned in the film which Haynes could have emphasised is KC’s drumming skills; she was regarded by many musicians as a very talented percussionist but this regard didn’t translate into mainstream recognition and offers of work.

There are some live-action passages but they are restricted to actual film clips of the Carpenters and other light pop performers of the 1970s and interviews of women who talk about the influence (or not) of the Carpenters on their lives. It might have been interesting for Haynes to have taken a brief detour and surveyed what happened to some of these singers and musicians as of 1987. Did they manage to survive the 1970s and continue into the next decade with sanity and health intact? Were they still shilling for the corporate music industry or had they all been swept away by new music trends like punk, new wave, ska, reggae and industrial?

The film makes no claim to be balanced or unbiased: it is sympathetic to KC’s plight but is also a screed against the exploitation of women, their bodies and talent for profit and corporate propaganda purposes. Perhaps it could have gone deeper into the influence of the corporate music industry and media generally on popular culture and how corporate values shape thinking and the direction of cultural values but the film looks very low-budget and so is restricted in what it can cover.

The Runaways: Cherie Bomb turns out to be a fizzler

This homage to the 1970s all-female hard rock band The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways, Apparition / Sony Pictures Entertainment 2010) had a lot of advance publicity due in part to the casting of US child stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as two of the band’s members, lead singer Cherie Currie and rhythm guitarist Joan Jett respectively. Internet and print reviews of the movie ranged from high praise to extreme dismissiveness so I was curious to see what the fuss was about. My interest isn’t entirely academic as I had heard of The Runaways in my childhood way back when thirty years ago and later on was glad to hear that Joan Jett and another former member, lead guitarist Lita Ford, had carved out their own successful solo careers in different music genres.

Anyway as it turns out, some of the praise and some of the criticism are justified: the acting from the two female leads Fanning and Stewart and from Michael Shannon who plays the sleazebucket manager Kim Fowley is good with Stewart all but disappearing in Jett with Jett’s swagger, mannerisms and way of speaking; but the narrative and concept of the movie are very confused and don’t seem to be well thought or worked out at all. Liberties must have been taken with the movie’s narrative as though to force it into the Hollywood rock’n’roll plot stereotype of an innocent stumbling into becoming a rock star and being seduced by the rock’n’roll lifestyle, suffering its consequences, crashing out and finding rebirth and redemption in something very different. (The plot of the movie Rockstar which starred Mark Wahlberg as a fictional pretender who becomes the lead singer of the heavy metal band he idolises is of this type.) I can understand the film’s focus on Currie and Jett to the extent that the other band members become mere walking wallpaper as it is mostly based on Currie’s autobiography Neon Angels: A Memoir of a Runaway and the film-makers didn’t get full permission from other former Runaways members to include their accounts – the bass player in the movie is a fictional construct of several bassists who played for the band – but I’d have thought that The Runaways’ history, short as it was, would have had enough drama and tragedy for a movie that could have said something significant about the period when music moved from glam rock to punk and new wave, and about how the music industry and the media at the time exploited bands and musicians for celebrity and scandal, sometimes damaging the artists along the way, and whether much has changed in the commercial music industry since that time.

If you know nothing about The Runaways’ history, you’d do better reading Currie’s autobiography or seeing Edgeplay: A Film about The Runaways, the documentary by Victory Tischler-Blue who was one of many bassists the band chewed through during its existence, than to rely on the movie: it’s a little slow on getting Jett and drummer Sandy West together, then the history lesson picks up whiz-bang speed after Currie joins and all of a sudden the band is touring Japan. Somewhere in between Currie’s audition and the girls’ adventures in Japan, they had to squeeze in a tour of the United States, a tour of the UK and recording two albums and all this must have flashed by me in the time my eyes blinked. After Currie quits the band during recording sessions for the third album, all further mention of The Runaways disappears and it’s now just Currie and Jett without her band going their separate ways. Jett cleans up her life and finds her niche in music while Currie ends up a bored shop assistant waiting for an acting break. Some redemption.

Perhaps if the movie had focussed more on Jett as the primary character than on Currie, we might have had a stronger and more complete story of The Runaways’ rise and fall. As it is, the movie tells us nothing about Jett’s  background and her motivations and reasons for forming an all-girl band; we only know from Stewart’s portrayal that she hungers for acceptance but on her own terms and that she is driven by forces she may not understand. The role could easily have been one-dimensional with Jett nothing more than a tough-talking wannabe rocker so it’s to Stewart’s credit that she makes Jett at least look as if she has thoughts and feelings she has trouble expressing. As Jett in real life stayed with The Runaways to the end, having Jett as its main focus would push the movie through the band’s dumping of manager Fowley and the disputes over musical direction that eventually led to The Runaways’ break-up; but I guess all these incidents wouldn’t have made for “compelling” viewing. At least though we would have had a “happy” ending with Jett getting the acceptance she craves in the way she wants and can control. Fanning as Currie emphasises the singer’s fragility but not much of the sassy sex-kitten insolence Currie must have had to wear the corset and suspenders that became her trademark stage costume long before Madonna and her ilk had the idea of wearing their underwear as overwear.

Mention should be made of the minor actors Scout Taylor Compton who does a competent job as Lita Ford in her few scenes – what she does hardly flatters Ford but she makes her presence felt as a guitarist and a forceful personality – and first-time actress Riley Keough who as Cherie Currie’s sister must cope with their parents’ break-up and divorce, their father’s alcoholic depression and the tedium of working in a fast-food joint while envying Cherie’s seemingly good fortune. Keough underplays her role and holds up well in scenes that are heavy in sibling jealousy and emotional tension and turmoil; she has good
potential as an actress if she chooses her roles wisely and I wish her better luck in this regard than what her grandfather Elvis Presley had as an actor.

As for the music, there’s not much of The Runaways’ original material featured here with only ‘Cherry Bomb’ performed in full by the actors during the Japanese episode and snippets of ‘Queens of Noise’ and ‘I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are’ appearing elsewhere. Other musicians of the period (Suzy Quatro, Gary Glitter, Iggy Pop among others) can be heard which strikes me as a little strange: why do so many biopics about bands feature everybody else’s music but not much music of the band that is the subject of the biopic?

The Runaways might not have been a very good band or as influential on later generations of female musicians and performers as the hype surrounding the movie makes them out to be but they deserve a better movie treatment than what director and screenplay writer Floria Sigismondi has given them here. Admittedly this is Sigismondi’s first effort as a movie director and writer after having directed music videos so I presume she’s learning a lot in leaps and bounds the hard way: making mistakes, overlooking things and being told so endlessly by critics. The visual aspect is good with the choice of a grainy film that makes bright colours slightly acid and dark colours murky and through these effects you get some idea of the surreal world Fowley plunges the girls into. These days it seems that there are so many people moving from making music videos into directing movies that such a career move is becoming the standard way of getting into the movie-making business. Unfortunately a lot of the filming techniques and methods that work in music videos don’t always work quite so well in movies, especially in movies made for mass  entertainment: these still need a strong narrative and memorable characters.

Don’t say you weren’t warned: It might get loud

it-might-get-loud-poster
Here’s the recipe: take three rock guitarists, each representative of his generation of rock musicians, put them together in a huge warehouse space with their instruments and, after they’ve talked a bit and become friendly, get them to play three pieces of music (each piece having been composed by each musician) together. Around this backbone, conduct and film separate interviews with the guys about their backgrounds, their influences, why and how they decided on their careers as guitarists, and what their creative processes are; put in archival footage of their concerts and some animations; revisit some significant sites (for the musicians) with them; and make a film (It Might Get Loud, Sony Pictures Classics) out of all this. The result is sometimes rich in music history, particularly when the guitarists under the spotlight happen to be Jimmy Page (The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs), but unfortunately also very jumpy, going from one musician to another just when the first guy finishes talking about a particular career impasse or crisis and is about to say how he resolved it if he did; and seems a bit superficial, not giving viewers unfamiliar with any of these guys much more than a sketchy idea of the long and winding roads each man took to be what he is now. Perhaps the format chosen is inadequate: might the whole thing have worked better if each guitarist had a half-hour episode devoted to his career and musical development and then in the fourth episode they got together to talk, compare and swap ideas and play one another’s songs? Well, perhaps not, because when these guys do meet, they end up being too nice to each other, too respectful and deferential, the Edge in particular grim-faced with self-consciousness about how his skills as a songwriter and musician stack up against those of Page and White who readily bond together, at least when they are playing each other’s songs, and the viewer gets no sense of friendships being made or future possible collaborations mooted.

As you’d expect, interesting moments abound: most interesting for me is seeing Jack White build a guitar from a slab of wood, a glass bottle, a wire and an electric pick-up, then plug the whole thing into an amplifier, get an awesome roar out of it and proclaim “Who needs an expensive guitar?” or words to that effect. Contrast this with scenes of The Edge worrying over his layers of technology that include a laptop and a battery of FX pedals to bolster his melodies and riffs, some of which turn out to be pretty insubstantial when he turns off all his equipment and strums his guitar. In one moment, The Edge demolishes a lot of the hype about U2’s music – not a good scene to watch if you’re a U2 fan. The Edge is revealed as a technology-obsessed control-freak geek who relies on his machines to compensate for what he perceives as inadequate songwriting and technical skills: he confesses that when he was much younger he wasn’t sure if he could write original material but the film-makers don’t press him on how he overcame his doubts. He reveals a lack of insight and reflection when he slags off the generation of rock musicians who came of age during the late 1960s / early ’70s for arrogant and self-indulgent behaviour but seems oblivious to U2’s own liking for massive and elaborate stage sets where Bono can run around and relish the audience’s adulation. Not to mention of course, Bono’s humanitarian posturing and U2’s moving their tax base to Netherlands after the Irish government reformed its tax laws to be more equitable and force high earners to pay more tax.

Jack White turns out to be the most interesting character in a way, rising from childhood poverty in south Detroit and a job in an upholstery shop to pursue a career in which he eschews technology and forces himself into challenging and sometimes hilarious and painful situations to keep his creativity and songwriting skills sharp. As a result along the way he creates an amplified harmonica gadget that happens to fit into his guitar almost by accident. Jimmy Page plays the affable cultured English gentleman who perhaps lives too much in the past – this may be due to the film-makers’ interview approach which concentrates on his past glories but not much on his current work – and who displays a maniacal glee when sorting through his alarmingly well-ordered and extremely neat record collection (I can already hear the jaws of The Wire readers hitting the ground and shattering) and doing slide air guitar while an old vinyl single plays on the gramophone. Free ticket to next year’s world championships in Finland to that man! He happily leads the film-makers around Headley Grange where Led Zeppelin recorded their famous third and fourth albums and explains how the massive drum sound on “When the Levee Breaks” was captured by placing microphones around stairwells, off bannisters and in areas surrounding the room where John Bonham was playing his drums. Apart from this, there’s really not a lot of information about the processes each guitarist goes through in writing songs – to be fair, White does compose an entire song for the film-makers but is wordless the whole time and Page seems to regard explaining such processes as a professional trade secret – and at the end of the film, we are still in the dark about how three individuals approach songwriting and composing riffs and melodies.

As a homage to three guitarists, the film is entertaining though the constant jumps from one musician to another can be annoying and we get little sense of purpose or progression in each musician’s career. The film-makers don’t appear to challenge their subjects much or pursue a line of enquiry: for example, Page talks about an early career crisis when he realises his work as a session musician hit a dead end but the film then cuts away to someone else. Later on Page is shown performing with the Yardbirds so we have to make our own assumptions about they presumably saved his career. Some reviews of the film I have seen describe it as boring and I can see that the fragmented nature of the filming can encourage boredom because any interesting narrative trails that develop are lost or not maintained.

Unintentionally perhaps the film makes the case that having loads of technology or impressive playing skills is no substitute for imagination and finding yourself in situations that either test your limits or present songwriting, playing and recording problems. Perhaps it’s too early to say yet whether throwing the three musicians together in a staged set-up will yield any interesting team-ups in future though in the end credits they did have a good time mucking around with Page’s theremin. Something’s bound to come out of that – and I hope it will get loud!