How Well Do We Know Them?

Sarasota Film Festival Movies Tell the True-Life Stories of Some Well-Known Women in the Arts

"Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection" is just one of several documentaries this week about real-life stars of the arts world and their offstage lives.

By Kay Kipling March 28, 2023

Karen Carpenter, subject of a documentary at the Sarasota Film Festival.

Sometimes during a film festival, like this week’s Sarasota Film Festival, it’s fun to attend a wide range of movies. Sometimes, though, you latch on to a particular genre or find a theme.

That’s the case for me this year. Poring over the lineup, I discovered that what intrigued me was a handful of movies devoted to telling the true-life stories of some very well-known women in the arts. The SFF programmers have sprinkled throughout the schedule documentaries on singer Karen Carpenter, author Judy Blume, actress Mary Tyler Moore and singer Donna Summer. Eureka! My festival direction was chosen.

First up is Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection, directed by Randy Martin (showing at Burns Court Cinema, with the next screening at 4 p.m. Thursday March 30). Sure, there have been films made about the short and tragic life of the 1970s pop music superstar before. (Think the TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story, from 1989, or director Todd Haynes’ experimental short film from 1988 that treated Carpenter’s life and struggle with anorexia through the use of Barbie dolls.)

But this new movie has the advantage of some never-before-heard voice recordings of the singer talking honestly about her career and her loneliness, along with interviews with some who knew her quite well or even slightly. Take Cubby O’Brien, the longtime drummer for the Carpenters, or Olivia Newton-John, who also faced fame at an early age and was close with Carpenter, or superfan Carnie Wilson (singer and daughter of Beach Boy Brian), who’s also a producer on the film.

They and the other voices heard here, such as fellow anorexia sufferer Cherry Boone O’Neill (daughter of singer Pat), paint a picture of a young woman whose closeness to her family, including brother Richard, was both a blessing and a curse. In this recapturing of Karen’s life, Richard, the elder of the two, was both her own idol and the preferred prodigy of their mother Agnes. It was hard for her to step out of his shadow at first, just as it was hard for her to step out from behind the drums and take center stage as vocalist for the group.

But it was her voice (through Richard’s admittedly smart song choices and masterful arrangements and orchestrations) that really made their list of hits come to life, from "Close to You" to "For All We Know" to "Superstar," "Rainy Days and Mondays" and on. And it’s the voice (which interviewee Carol Burnett compares to a “velvet hammer”) that lingers long after Karen’s death in 1983 at the age of 32, as younger generations discover the Carpenters’ songs that were far from the harder rock of the 1970s decade.

The documentary makes clear that, in Karen’s day, little was understood or acknowledged about anorexia, and there was a stigma attached that may be (at least somewhat) lessened today. For her, help didn’t come in time. And that pursuit of perfection, both onstage and off, was doomed.

For more information on the movies scheduled through April 2, head to

Show Comments