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Movie review: The Karen Carpenter Story

Posted Jan 07 2009 4:30pm

My next review was originally going to be Hunger Point, but the movie is currently not on YouTube. Therefore, I opted for The Karen Carpenter Story instead. Click the link and watch the movie on YouTube first if you don’t want spoilers!

What I like about this movie:

  • Okay, first off, I must say that I like some of the Carpenters’ music. You heard me right - this metal and rock junkie enjoys a soft tune every once in awhile. And as far as mellow music goes, nobody put it together like Karen and Richard. Consider me a fan.
  • The opening scene is well-orchestrated. Here was this extremely successful lady on the floor, losing her life from long-term complications from anorexia. This is a serious disease. Get it, general public?
  • One of the most underrated scenes in this movie is where Harold ends up signing Karen’s recording contract. Louise Fletcher as Agnes Carpenter is spot-on here. Carpenters fans know that Agnes prized Richard and his talent but was slower to acknowledge Karen and her success. In fact, Louse Fletcher is perhaps the best-matched actress to her character in this film.
  • In the scene where Karen is being asked to front the band:
    Karen: I wouldn’t feel right.
    Ted Newman: But you would look right.
    Oh, how telling.
  • Karen’s struggle for independence and her own separate identity are well-documented here.
  • The ending always grabs me. The lighting effect of Karen turning into a shadow of herself has great meaning in more than one sense.

What I don’t like about this movie:

  • I hate the way TV movies show the anorexic character as eating constantly before the disorder and then next to nothing  when the character develops anorexia nervosa. She ate before, then she doesn’t eat. We get it. Please stop exaggerating this point.
  • Karen’s “hair” is one of the worst collections of wigs ever.
  • Several small details are incorrect. For instance, this film makes it sound like Karen’s aspirations for a solo album never happened. In fact, they did, and she recorded an album with Phil Ramone in 1979. The album was shelved in 1980 when record execs didn’t like it. Richard later released the album in 1996. Also, Karen’s husband was not Bob Knight. His name was Tom Burris. I could go on, but I’d be typing all day.
  • Edited to add on 1/6: One thing I just thought of that irks me about this film is that the makeup artists didn’t even try to make Karen look sick. Her face looked the same throughout the entire movie. Unfortunately, nothing was further from the truth. Her youthful appearance slowly faded away as AN took over, as you can see in photos from 1976 to 1981.

Possible triggers:

  • A brief moment of “fat talk” between Karen and Lucy.
  • Karen pinches the skin on her stomach, convinced it is fat.
  • Shot of a bare, bony back when Karen is being weighed at the hospital. You can also take a guess as to what Karen’s weight is by the positions on the scale.

Hilarious details:

  • The guy stamping his foot in tune with “The End of the World” at the talent contest.
  • The record company rep turns to Harold to sign Karen’s recording contract after Agnes voices her dislike of the situation.
  • I don’t want to knock Cynthia Gibb too much on her lack of drumming skills - I know you can learn only so much for a skill like that in the short time an actor is given to prepare for a role - but it’s pretty clear that she’s not a drummer.
  • Why in the world would you put a picture of someone jogging on a record cover?
  • I LOVE how the guy says, “So they sprinkled moon dust in your hair?” and the film cuts to that very line in “Close To You.” Makes me laugh every time.
  • The “sold out” tour posters are waaaaay ahead of their time. The Carpenters’ early days of touring were in the early ’70s. The poster is a remake of the Made In America album cover, an album that was released in 1981. Oops! Nice how they altered Karen and Richard’s faces to look more like Cynthia Gibb (Karen) and Mitchell Anderson (Richard), though.
  • During the “Love is Surrender” rehearsal, you can hear Richard’s vocals, but he is standing in the balcony listening.
  • Karen is wearing a “Made In America” sweatshirt while she is exercising on the bike. See the comment above about the posters.
  • Agnes’ take on Quaaludes: “They’re not drugs. They’re prescription medicine.” Yep, they’re safe, all right!
  • Why is Richard playing with the bag of fluids for the IV?

Other commentary:

  • The opening scene where Karen was taken to the hospital was a re-creation of what actually happened. I also read somewhere that aside from the actors playing the main characters, the same people that were there were used - the paramedics, the people standing outside the house - somehow, they were all brought together for this scene. Even the same ambulance was used. I wish I could find the source where I read about this…can anyone help?
  • For once, not a bad “fat suit.”
  • Many of the clothes Karen wore are used as wardrobe for this film.
  • Yes, Karen really was a drummer before she started singing. Even as good of a singer as she was, she considered herself a drummer who sang.
  • When the “chubby sister” review came out, Karen was probably at what could be considered her ideal weight.
  • Dr. Lazwell is based off of Steven Levenkron, whom Karen sought help from in 1981. Levenkron is also the author of The Best Little Girl in the World.
  • You can catch the smallest glimpse of the real Richard Carpenter while Karen is singing “Now” in the recording studio. FYI: “Now” was the last song Karen recorded, and the version you hear was the first and only take. It was recorded while Karen was on a short break from her treatment in 1982, not after she completed treatment as the movie shows.
  • Richard Carpenter supervised production of this film. He would later say that he regretted his involvement in the project.

Overall rating: Just a shred under 4 out of 5. I like this film, despite its inaccuracies. It doesn’t stray so far from the truth that it repulses me (Richard Carpenter may beg to differ). I like that Karen’s struggle for identity and independence is shown here, because so much of that contributed to her eating disorder. And horrible wigs aside, I think Cynthia Gibb did a fine job of portraying Karen. This couldn’t have been an easy role for her, but she was splendid. As far as TV movies go, this is one of the better ones.

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