The Karen Carpenter Story (1989)


A review of the 1989 CBS TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story, starring Cynthia Gibb Mitchell Anderson and Louise Fletcher, about the life and career of the famous singer who died at the age of 32

The 1989 CBS television movie chronicles the life, career and early death of singer Karen Carpenter. With her talented musician and arranger brother Richard, they would create the musical group The Carpenters. Together they would soar in popularity with their sweet soothing songs and Karen’s angelic voice at the center of their music. They would sell millions of albums and dominate radio airplay in the early 1970s. 

As with many famous musician stories, there would be a darkness behind the curtain of fame and success. Richard would become addicted to quaaludes. He would ultimately be able to overcome his addiction, however Karen’s own struggle with anorexia nervosa would end in tragedy. Her body would waste away and she would die at age 32.

This ’89 television movie has been the only docudrama made about Karen Carpenter. While there have been countless films about Elvis, Carpenter’s life hasn’t gotten the Hollywood film treatment in the same way. The main reason for this is probably due to Richard Carpenter, who is known to be very protective of his sister’s legacy and has been hesitant of permitting projects about her to go forward. 

The-Carpenters-Karen-singer-Richard-arranger-1970s-popularIt’s said he’s extremely litigious in protecting The Carpenters. He famously sued director Todd Haynes for his 1988 short film Superstar, where Karen’s story of battling anorexia was portrayed using Barbie dolls. Failing to get the license to use the Carpenters music in the film, Carpenter successfully blocked its release.

Superstar might’ve been the catalyst why The Karen Carpenter Story followed on network television a year later. Seeing that Karen’s story was going to be told in some fashion, Richard might have believed it was better he work with a production and try to have some control over it. He was a executive producer on this television film and composed the music. It was also suspected he did some directing of certain scenes for the film, while also demanding daily script rewrites.

The film went to some lengths to tell Karen’s story. Carpenter insisted that Gibb lose weight in order to wear Karen’s real clothes in some scenes. Filming took place at the Carpenter home in Downey California where Karen had lived and died. The extras playing the EMTs during the scene of Karens death were the actual first responders how arrived at the house that day.

While promoting the CBS film Carpenter said at the time, “I’m not for a second going to say this is exactly the way it happened,” he said, “because it’s not. (But) I think that, considering the genre we’re dealing with, it came off as well as it can.”

The-Karen-Carpenter-Story-1989-tv-movie-biography-docudramaIn later interviews Carpenter said he regretted ever allowing the film to happen and it was mistake for him to ever gotten involved in it.  Carpenter has been quoted as saying it was, “90 minutes of creative license that give biopics in general a dubious tone.” 

Richard Carpenter wasn’t the only one upset by the film. The actors and filmmakers would later reveal that he was extremely difficult to work with and his strict controlled over the film.

Gibb supposedly said the final film gave a “white washed” account of Carpenter’s life and a lot fo the information in it was “watered down or removed altogether” at the request of Carpenter. There was even a wild story of Richard falling to his knees during the production and crying asking for Karen’s forgiveness.

The Karen Carpenter Story was a hit in the ratings, being the highest-rated two-hour TV movie of the year. 

Directed by Joseph Sargent (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Goldengirl, and who previously directed Jaws 4: The Revenge, The Karen Carpenter Story is rather a safe and a bit standard bio-pic. I think of it as a average network TV movie. It doesn’t do anything too exciting or has anything revealing or offers insights into who Karen Carpenter truly was or the demons she battled. It tries to be respectful and doesn’t tread into exploitative territory.

It presents Karen and Richard as basically two good people that fell victims to the perils of celebrity. There’s no blame placed, pointing fingers or reasons given. And that’s where I think the problem is. The film plays out as overly simplistic and superficial as possible. There’s something about it all that feels like it’s playing it too safe and is only giving us the official PR version of events that Richard wants to tell. It’s exactly as how Gibb would later describe.

Karen-Carpenter-Story-1989-bio-movie-Cynthia-Gibb-Michael-McGuire-Mitchell-AndersonAs the story spans a twenty year period, The Carpenters music run throughout and the sounds of their music punctuate scenes with emotion. I can’t imagine how one could tell the story of Karen Carpenter without her singing voice and the music she and her brother made. It’s a vital component and that alone cloaks the story in an inevitable sadness, since we know how her story will end and the voice that is going to be lost.

The cast is good. Gibb portrays Karen as a energetic adolescent to a mature young woman who wants to please those around her to the the anxiety-filled and lonely tragic figure. It’s quite the task to play a real life person, especially one that we’re so familiar with, but Gibb effectively makes me accept she is Karen Carpenter. I think she does a very good job. 

Cynthia-Gibb-as-Karen-Carpenter-television-CBS-movie-1989-reenactment-docudramaI can say the same for Mitchell Anderson as Richard. The two leads are likable and hold my attention as they start as eager young performers who go from singing at town fairs to sold out arenas. 

I believe Gibb did do some of her own singing in the film, but there are clearly moments where she lip syncs to Karen’s famous voice in some scenes and they’re done fine. The scenes might not be completely convincing, but the sound of Karen’s voice alone carries the scenes through despite not accepting its meant to be coming from Gibb. 

There’s a wonderful scene early in their careers when Richard convinces Karen to step away from her drum set and sing for a music producer. Her voice doesn’t impress him. Then Richard stops her, they change cords, start again and we suddenly hear her incomparable voice. It’s an enchanting moment.

The reenactments of Karen performing are the highlights. Gibb does a fine job and simply because her voice was so beautiful it reminds you just what a vocal gift Karen Carpenter had. 

The-Karen-Carpenter-Story-1989-tv-movie-Louise-Fletcher-Cynthia-GibbEver since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Louise Fletcher had a handle on domineering, icy characters. In fact, I always find it difficult to separate her from the role of Nurse Ratchet, even when she’s playing a more sympathetic character.

Here, she fulfills the role of the Carpenter’s matriach who’s ends up unknowingly pushing her children to success and destruction. 

Looking at it from the viewpoint of it being a 1989 television movie, it’s understandable that not everything about the Carpenters lives can be told in the compressed hour and a half. Some aspects of her life are quickly glossed over. Her brief marriage is sped through. Her solo album is never even mentioned.

There’s something too cursory about the movie with no real removed perspective. It’s a very sanitized version of events, due to Richard being so protective of the images of his sister, his mother and his own. It feels like the complications and drama of their lives are barely hinted at. There are some effective emotional scenes, but I can’t help but think how much more there was to Karen Carpenter’s life than what is presented in the film.

Since the film was released, it was confirmed that it wasn’t completely accurate. The production was tense and Richard Carpenter held a firm grip of how their lives would be presented. The family rejected three writers work on the script, not wanting the family to be portrayed in any negative way. Many scenes were shelved because of him vetoing them. This resulted in a less objective look at any ‘true story’ and a much more smoothed over account. Carpenter fans continue to feel that The Karen Carpenter Story was hindered by Richard’s involvement and his control over it.

Fans often cite the book Little Girl Blue as a much more accurate account of Karen’s life that tells the tortuous and darker portions of her life and her family than anything the television movie goes near. 

Karen-Carpenter-Story-1989-anorexia-docudrama-TV-movieHad it not been such a cursory sketch of her life and not tiptoed around what exactly Karen was doing to herself it would have been much more powerful. Some aspects of her life are quickly glossed over and some not even included (her brief marriage, her solo album).

I feel that it being a network Sunday TV movie that a generation would sit down for, made only six years after her death I’m more forgiving of what it lacks. It was meant to be a respectful and touching love letter to Karen Carpenter and the unique voice the world lost.

Cynthia-Gibb-in-The-Karen-Carpenter-Story-1989-biography-singer-docudramaYet, there’s much more depth to her story than what this film choose to explore. There has been a new documentary announced about Karen called Starving for Perfection. I haven’t heard of an official release date for it yet, but it looks like it will go into much more detail and provide deeper insights of her struggles with her eating disorder. It will explore more of the darker aspects to her life and relationships. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

For now, The Karen Carpenter Story is fine and if you’re a fan of The Carpenters you might enjoy it, despite it being such a tame telling of her life. There’s a whole lot more that was going on under the surface than what the film tells. 




The trailer for the upcoming documentary about Karen Carpenter Starving For Perfection

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