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The Bootleg Files: The Carpenters…Space Encounters

BOOTLEG FILES 761: “The Carpenters…Space Encounters” (1978 television variety special).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Music clearance rights are probably at the root of the problem.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

When it comes to kitsch, nothing beats the television variety specials of the 1970s. Between the none-too-special guest stars performing musical numbers for which they were ill-suited, the flashy polyester costuming, the overbaked choreography and the manic need to appear hip, these productions often represent the best of the worst elements from the decade that good taste forgot.

But not all kitsch is created equal. Some kitsch is enervated to the point of lameness, and whatever unintentional giggles a viewer can generate are the result of pity rather than merriment. This is the case in the 1978 television variety special “The Carpenters…Space Encounters,” which is an hour’s worth of bad ideas crammed into a nearly unwatchable spectacle. And yet, there are sad glimmers in this offering of genuine talent that should have been better framed.

As the title might suggest, “The Carpenters…Space Encounters” was trying to cash in on the popularity of the Steven Spielberg “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In this endeavor, the extra-terrestrials fly around in a spacecraft with a dance floor that accommodates a small army of toe-tappers wearing white fur hats, white boots and ruby red uniforms. The spacecraft is captained by John Davidson in a tight white jumpsuit that is unzipped to just above his navel. (Davidson has “special guest star” status in the credits – only in the 70s, kids.) His second in command is Suzanne Somers, who is coiffed and dressed to look like a down-on-her-luck Las Vegas hooker.

These aliens make contact with Karen and Richard Carpenter, who are trying to record “Sweet, Sweet Smile” in a studio manned by sound engineer Charlie Callas. (The scrawny comic has little to do but make funny faces and odd noises to accentuate the absurdity of the presentation.) The extra-terrestrials are watching this on a large screen – it is not clear how they got a camera into the Carpenters’ recording studio – and they are so impressed that Davidson is beamed down to Earth.

It seems that Davidson is on an academic mission: his planet is intellectually advanced in terms of science and technology, but they are lacking in arts and culture and want the singing siblings to be their tutor. Using a device that looks like a primitive forerunner of the smartphone, he calls up an alleged video of the Carpenters during their high school days when they perform “Fun Fun Fun” and “Dancing in the Street” for their classmates at a dance. The fact the classmates are at least 10 years too old to be mistaken for high school kids is the least of the problems – Karen Carpenter, for all of her considerable gifts, should not have been trying to do soft-pop covers of the Beach Boys and Martha Reeves.

Nonetheless, Davidson is so impressed that he decides he wants to sing, and we get a rendition of “Just the Way You Are” that flatlines in the first few bars – if a defibrillator could be applied to this performance, it wouldn’t be able to regenerate life.

The Carpenters share their memory of the beginning of their career, and we get another alleged flashback showing them recording “Goofus” in a garage. For the most part, Richard Carpenter was not the major focus of this show up until now, but suddenly he was given the spotlight as a pianist performing the “Space Encounters Medley” (a mash of the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Star Wars” themes with other vaguely classic compositions). The number is backed by a full orchestra and a 1978-style laser effects set-up, and the result is pure silliness.

With Richard getting his solo turn, Karen is given her chance to shine performing the Rodgers and Hart classic “Little Girl Blue.” While the setting is dumb – she is supposedly recalling how she had to wait in a dark alley for an audition – her command of the song displays vocal prowess and star charisma with stunning power. Indeed, the number is so remarkable that one could imagine it was edited in from another (and much better) show.

This madness wraps up in an extended finale up on the spacecraft. Richard plays “Piano Picker,” which is not remarkable. Suzanne Somers, who was wasted in the special as a dumb blonde who could barely carry out Davidson’s orders, suddenly turns on the energy and joins Karen in a rollicking duet of the calypso tune “Man Smart, Woman Smarter.” While Somers was hardly Karen’s vocal equal, the pair had an unexpected bond that sparked a fun and sexy song-and-dance number. As with the “Little Girl Blue” number, this segment feels like it was grafted on from another show.

Karen and Davidson then sleepwalk through a timid rendition of the Charles Aznavour classic “The Old-Fashioned Way” before the entire cast goes disco with a mix of “The Hustle.” “Boogie Nights” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.” While Karen and Somers have no problems grooving to the disco beat, the male stars are clearly counting their robotic steps.

The show concludes with the Carpenters performing their seven-minute UFO ode “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” It is a straightforward rendition, with no campy elements –and that’s no mean feat, considering the eccentricity of the tune.

Watching this special today, it is somewhat painful to realize that Karen would be dead within five years of the broadcast. The production’s hair and make-up artists did a brilliant job in giving her the appearance of good health and she certainly invested 110% of pure performance energy into her work, but in certain shots her gauntness is obvious and becomes heartbreaking to view.

“The Carpenters…Space Encounters” was broadcast on ABC on May 17, 1978. The network placed this in a variety special double-header, with a one-shot show headlining Olivia Newton-John following this effort. The show was never released in any commercial home entertainment format, most likely due to the high cost of clearing the rights to the numerous songs that were performed. Carpenters fans who need to track down the duo’s entire canon can find this on YouTube. But trust me, the special is anything but out of this world.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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