Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Every Sha-la-la, Every Woah-woah-oh

The other day, PBS aired a remastered version of the documentary Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters, which originally debuted on public television in 1997. I was excited to rewatch it, for multiple reasons.

I will forever have an appreciation for the Carpenters because they were part of the soundtrack of my childhood. My mom was a devotee of the well-constructed pop of the '70s, and so Richard and Karen played often alongside Elton John, Billy Joel, James Taylor, and Neil Diamond. And I vividly remember watching the 1989 TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story. It was my first exposure to the idea of anorexia, and my 12-year-old mind was blown by the idea of someone looking in the mirror and not seeing reality.

I bought Close to You on VHS at a thrift store or garage sale at some point in the early 2000s. One Sunday afternoon my friends Tiger and Christa came over after we'd gone out to lunch. Tiger spotted the tape on the shelf and said, "Let's watch that." I put it in, believing we'd last about 15 minutes before moving on to something else or they both decided to go home. Instead, we all became engrossed and watched it to the end.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. It's a compelling story well-told. On the surface the Carpenters and their music are easy to dismiss because they are aggressively not cool. But the documentary reveals the musical sophistication behind the group's easy-to-digest pop songs. And of course Karen's profound unhappiness and tragic fate add an undercurrent of darkness and poignancy to so many of her performances. That, along with lots of archival footage and plenty of screen time for an oddly magnetic Richard Carpenter, make for a remarkable watching experience.