KAREN CARPENTER: STARVING FOR PERFECTION – Review by Lois Alter Mark

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Long ago and, oh, so far away, I – like millions of other fans – fell in love with Karen Carpenter. Her distinctive, instantly recognizable voice provided the soundtrack to so many of our lives yet, for reasons no one understood, she never believed she was good enough. When she died of cardiac arrest from anorexia nervosa at the age of 32, the world was devastated. How did this happen? Why hadn’t anyone noticed what was going on?

Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection explores the mysteries behind the beloved singer’s life and death. Through previously unseen footage and interviews with people who were close to her, it offers new insight into the demons that haunted her. Director Randy Martin interviews an eclectic group of friends and colleagues, including Olivia Newton-John, Suzanne Somers, Kristin Chenoweth and Belinda Carlisle – celebrities you wouldn’t necessarily expect to all be on the same page. The fact that Karen’s appeal reached across so many aisles is a real testament to the impact she had.

The doc opens with actress Cynthia Gibb, who played the singer in the made-for-TV film, The Karen Carpenter Story, talking about wearing Karen’s actual clothes in the movie and how they kept getting smaller and smaller over time. “My God, Karen, what did you do to yourself?” a distressed Gibb wondered when she could no longer get the zipper up. By the end of her life, Carpenter weighed only 80 pounds.

So how did this happen?

Martin’s narrative seems to implicate Agnes, the duo’s mother, as a controlling woman who had strong and old-fashioned opinions on how her daughter should behave. She never seemed to appreciate or celebrate Karen’s talent, saving her praise for the prodigal son – Karen’s brother, Richard, the other half of the Carpenters, who is glaringly missing from this documentary.

The movie is a reminder that success is not synonymous with happiness and that we never really know what’s going on behind the spotlight. Despite their massive success, there was always “a real sadness to Karen’s voice,” says Belinda Carlisle. Just listen to Rainy Days & Mondays and you’ll understand the meaning of melancholy.

What’s most sobering about Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection, though, are the statistics displayed onscreen before the film begins: At least 30 million Americans have eating disorders. Every hour at least one person dies from it.

If more people had been aware of the seriousness of eating disorders, maybe Carpenter could have received the help she needed. Instead of suffering and tragically dying way too young, the iconic superstar should have been on top of the world.

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Lois Alter Mark

Lois Alter Mark is an award-winning writer who reviews films on Midlife at the Oasis. A former contributing writer for Entertainment Weekly for more than a decade, she also reviewed films for NickJr.com for many years. She is a member of San Diego Film Critics Society and tweets from @loisaltermark. She writes about travel for USA Today and Forbes.