By Brian Landa
Dave Grohl, Ringo Starr. Charlie Watts. Taylor Hawkins. And Karen Carpenter. Yes, that Karen Carpenter. Perhaps one of the greatest drumming talents that ever lived, Carpenter passed away in 1983 – 40 years ago. Yet the music lives on. And the real story is still being told.
A new documentary titled Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection was recently screened at the 2023 Dallas International Film Festival. Produced by Dallas’ own AMS Studios, this is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in recent memory. And music documentaries are my jam, wordplay intended. Director Randy Martin and writer-producer Randy Schmidt, among many others involved here, have made one for the ages.
Most everyone is aware that Karen passed away from complications tied to anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that was just starting to be understood at the time, but she was so much more. This documentary goes places that we have not seen before on film, through archival footage and talking head interviews with fellow musicians/performers, scholars, and authors, who have delved into deeper parts of her life. Without any involvement from the Carpenter family, this is an unsullied telling. Sometimes we want the unauthorized version because it’s often more honest. I won’t reveal all here.
Originally based in Connecticut, the Carpenter family moved west as they decided that seeking music success would be less challenging living in California. Karen’s brother Richard was a skilled pianist and viewed by the family as a true talent. Kid sister Karen was seen as too busy playing ball in the street and collecting stuffed animals and Mickey Mouse memorabilia to be taken seriously. But that voice – oh what a voice.
When Karen was offered a record contract at sixteen, Mrs. Carpenter said “With Richard or no deal.” – which was the beginning of “Carpenters” writ large, but also the seed of something that would lead to Karen’s end.
Karen was almost always in Richard‘s shadow within the family, but she preferred to be in the shadow of her drum kit. An amazing drummer with a large setup, as Carpenters climbed the charts, Cubby O’Brien (yes, that Cubby from the original Mickey Mouse Club) joined the band as a drummer, and they played in identical tandem for a time, until finally, Richard wanted, nay demanded, Karen stand up and be out front.
Known for very conservative attire and many frilly dresses, Karen’s wardrobe was vast. There had been a television movie starring Cynthia Gibb (Fame / Salvador) where the family had complete control, and that meant Gibb was able to wear the real outfits, and filming took place in the actual Carpenter home. But the trade-off was a dilution of the real story.
The late Olivia Newton-John (Grease / Xanadu), among the many interviewed here, was one of Karen’s best friends. They were kindred spirits because they both knew and understood the life of a touring musician and being under the spotlight as a talented woman.
Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s lends insight into what it’s like to be an up-and-coming musical talent, where the media is more concerned about physical appearance. Carlisle also suffered from body dysmorphia and eating disorders.
Carnie Wilson of Wilson-Phillips, daughter of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and a named executive producer on this project, is a very insightful interview on the subjects of body image and growing up in a famous family. Such an existence can give even the most talented person self-doubt. But back to that voice.
Karen passed away unexpectedly at 32 years old, but a song like Rainy Days & Mondays has such old soul pain and pathos. Deep down behind the apparent sunniness of a song like Top Of The World, this was not a truly happy person, although the music is achingly beautiful. “Suffer for the art,” they say. Karen had no true support system at the time, from what we know. And people were happy to indulge her misdirection as she became visibly more frail, to the point of hospitalization.
Carpenters don’t get much more white bread and are still viewed by many as a guilty pleasure. This documentary even features a scene from the David Spade/Chris Farley comedy Tommy Boy about exactly that. But they don’t need to be a guilty pleasure. That music is transcendent, no matter who you are. Richard, whatever his faults, is the custodian of the legacy, and recently worked on new orchestrations with the Royal Philharmonic, utilizing Karen’s original vocal tracks. I’ve listened and it’s glorious.
The late great Burt Bacharach and Hal David had a hand in some of their biggest songs like (They Long To Be) Close To You, and with that flugelhorn and voice, you know immediately that it’s Bacharach / David / Carpenter. I was unaware beforehand that some of their biggest hits are covers of pre-existing songs. One was originally a commercial jingle for a bank, written by Paul Williams (We’ve Only Just Begun), and many other hits like Superstar became the most well-known and definitive version, eclipsing the Rita Coolidge and Bette Midler versions.
I would have liked to have seen more drummers discussing her expert skills, with more diversity among the interview subjects. Perhaps some hard rock-n-roll drummers like Tommy Lee and Lars Ulrich speaking of her massive talent behind the kit. I also wonder if Sheila E. has anything to say about Karen Carpenter.
Jazz. Rock. She could do it all – until she couldn’t. A tragic story, but we still have the music, and what music it is.
Guest contributor Brian Landa is a Dallas-based entertainment attorney, licensed in Texas and Oklahoma.