...Melancholy Blue "My Karen Carpenter Biopic Wish"
Talkin’ to myself and feelin’ old Sometimes I’d like to quit Nothin’ ever seems to fit Hangin’ around Nothin’ to do but frown Rainy days and Mondays always get me down
Plaintive. Sweet. Sad. Somehow when I think of 1970s singer Karen Carpenter, my words don’t come out in full sentences. The pixie dust magic of her life. The quiet tragedy of her death. In the pantheon of pop culture tragedies, she stands strikingly, breathtakingly alone. Her death at age 32 on February 4th, 1983, from complications of the “then” little-known eating disorder called anorexia nervosa, sent those proverbial “shock waves” across the globe.
Anorexia? What’s that? A person starving themselves to death? Why? And wasn’t Karen’s weight at a good level when she died? So how could she have died from anorexia? Wasn’t it heart failure? So many questions surround her death, and the reason for the disorder that caused it.
Now the Hollywood big screen is flush with “musical” biopics – both tragic and triumphant. There’s Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993), and Freddie Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). These are just a few.
But what about Karen Carpenter? Back in 1989, Cynthia Gibb starred in the TV film The Karen Carpenter Story. Did I like it? Actually yes. I know TV movies are often limited in production capabilities, not to mention forced to adhere to “family-friendly” ratings – still I felt Cynthia Gibb delivered a fine performance. She successfully showed the arc of Karen’s personality from teenager to adult – from so-called “simple suburban girl” to “global pop star” who still had a simple suburban girl’s heart.
This personality arc is important, because by all accounts, therein lies part of Karen Carpenter’s emotional struggle, which might’ve contributed to her becoming anorexic. Many documentaries on Karen attest to her love and craving of the “simple life” – husband, children, cozy Christmas holidays, and the occasional softball game. Sure, she could sing, and even play a mean set of drums. And sure she wanted success. But, her deep-seated desires were always far from the limelight.
The TV movie also has some unique touches. Cue intriguing scene transitions and songs that creatively illuminate the narrative and move it forward. I was particularly struck by the opening sequence: Karen is wheeled through the hospital on a gurney that fateful day of her death on February 4th, 1983, where The Carpenters’ popular song “Rainy Days and Mondays” transitions to a haunting child-like voice and an old-school pop tune. We then see an empty hospital hallway with a girl roller-skating by herself. Then cut to a thirteen-year-old Karen Carpenter roller-skating in her new suburban neighborhood of Downey, California, in 1963. Loved this scene and musical transition. It was hauntingly engaging.
Which brings me back to my wish for a Hollywood feature film on Karen Carpenter. How great would it be to see an expanded, more personal, and likely even more compassionate exploration into this pop legend’s life? It would show how she, like each of us, was still just a person, despite her immense talent and fame.
And let’s talk about that immense talent. For those not in the 1970s “know,” Karen Carpenter had a GORGEOUS alto voice. Yes, that’s all caps. Her voice was one-of-a-kind. Distinctive. Velvety. Silky. Effortless. There I go again – speaking in fragments about Karen. I am off daydreaming of songs like “Ticket to Ride” and “Goodbye to Love” and “Close To You.” I grew up listening to The Carpenters' album The Singles: 1969-1973. So really anything on that album is pure heaven to me.
But back to my biopic case. The uniqueness of Karen Carpenter’s vocal artistry, and her ability to master her voice alongside her phenom brother Richard Carpenter, who excelled in creating the arrangements and piano instrumentals to accentuate her voice, is subject material enough for a biopic.
The Carpenters were a brother/sister pop duo that have literally gone down in the history books. Case in point: They won Best New Artist in 1971, and even won Best Contemporary Vocal Performance in 1971, beating out legends The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel! They have since had two songs inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. ‘Nuff said. These two deserve some “big-screen love” for their musical genius.
But then, I'd be profoundly touched to see Karen’s inner life, both her joys and struggles, be given attention, kindness, and respect on the big-screen. The TV movie was a good springboard – a jumping off point to some scall-scale degree. But let’s rocket up into those beautiful, billowy white “Top of the World” Hollywood clouds. After all, anorexia, while it’s much better understood today than in 1983, is still a dangerous physical and mental condition that could benefit from the spotlight. And what better person to light the way than, to quote singer Nicole Scherzinger of The Pussycat Dolls, our “songbird of sadness” Karen Carpenter?
Indeed, Karen Carpenter inspired the love of many famous singers. Outside of Nicole Scherzinger, she is beloved to fellow alto phenom K.D. Lang, who loved Karen Carpenter’s ability to simply “deliver” a song without a lot of fuss or ornaments. Karen’s voice was pure, strong, and perfect. Madonna and Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes are also big fans. And fellow 1960s and ‘70s Burt Bacharach muse Dionne Warwick was also a fan and friend. And there are more, including legendary Beatle John Lennon.
As I, for whatever reason, felt compelled to pore over numerous YouTube documentaries this autumn on The Carpenters, and as I binged their music like never before, I’ve become awash with an unexpected melancholy. After all these years, Karen Carpenter’s music and life story still resonate exceptionally deeply with me, making me want MORE. More of a voice that is no longer alive to sing – or to speak of her own life story. And more of a beautiful artistic medium (film) that can help bring her story to life.
These past two years I have simply adored my Flickside writing series called “The Toast.” Through my “movie star" articles, I have celebrated artistic talent and hopefully given dignity to each of the actors I have spotlighted. Cue Natalie Wood, Robert Redford, Audrey Hepburn, Robin Williams, and many more. I have covered a lot of glitz! And yet, I’m sometimes amazed at how, at the end of the day, a glitzy tale of fame and fortune is always eclipsed by the basic human story.
And that’s how I feel about Karen Carpenter. As a human, she was rich. So rich. And always will be. Take away the musical legacy she left behind, and we have a person who had so much to say without truly saying it – or maybe she did say it, but she didn’t allow others to hear it, or maybe they weren’t listening. See what I mean? Scroll back to the beginning of this article: So many questions surround her death, and the disorder that caused it.
For you, Karen Carpenter, I say “thank you” for blessing us for 32 years. And for any Hollywood execs who might be reading this article, I say, “Let’s get on this. It’s time.” Which brings me to my final question. It’s one that I’ve come back to time and time again. Here goes. Are we ready? Big Hollywood drumroll – “What actress should play the role of Karen Carpenter?”