Phantom of the Paradise (1974)


Brian De Palma is an abashed fan of classic films, usually those of Alfred Hitchcock.  Many of his early films, up to and including Carrie, have references both in place names and often in entire shots to Hitchcock, to the point where some critics wondered where homage merged into plagiarism.  However, Phantom of the Paradise abandons all that for one movie to both give tribute, as well as satirize, the over-serious rock opera and glam scenes that were in fashion in the early 1970s as well as make his own Hammer film.

The reason I say Hammer is, though still based on Gaston Leroux's novel (and sued by his estate, among others), this has little to do with The Phantom of the Opera novel beyond its premise.  Instead, along with a tip of the hat to Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray, this is largely a retelling of the Hammer version that was directed by Terence Fisher.  Instead of an opera stolen by the evil, womanizing rich guy, it's a "rock cantata" based on the story of Faust, which was the opera featured in the original 1925 version of the film.

Swan (Paul Williams) is the owner of Death Records and the most successful music producer of all time.  He is currently promoting his '50s nostalgia group, the Juicy Fruits, but is looking for something special to open up his new concert venue, the Paradise.  He hears that something special when a singer/songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley) sneaks in and starts playing selections from his cantata on the piano.  Swan decides that he wants the music, but not Winslow, and sends his right-hand man Philbin (George Memmoli) to obtain it.

A month later Winslow becomes concerned after not hearing back and is disheartened to find out that Swan is using his music without crediting him.  While trying to speak to Swan he meets a young singer named Phoenix (Jessica Harper) that can sing his music perfectly, only Swan wants nothing to do with her because she prefers to sing rather than engage in other activities.  Winslow is framed for drug possession and imprisoned, and upon escape becomes disfigured in a record press while trying to destroy the copies of his song that are being distributed by Death.  He embarks on a plan to ruin Swan's theater, but when Phoenix shows up to sing agrees to work with his nemesis to make her dreams come true.  Unfortunately, Swan answers to a higher - or lower - power, and does not intend to follow through on his end of the deal.

I remember one criticism of this movie being that Paul Williams, who wrote the music for it as well as starring as Swan, seemed to have some sort of prejudice against hard rock. Since Brian De Palma was also the main scriptwriter, I see it less as a problem with hard rock than with the excesses of glam rock at the time.  The Undeads do a performance that is close to Alice Cooper (some would say Kiss, but they were just starting out at the time and not really popular yet), while Beef, played by Gerrit Graham, represents someone like Andy Scott of Sweet or Noddy Holder of Slade - pure hard rock voice and masculine posturing but dressed up in a feminine veneer.  Needless to say his portrayal of a flamboyant homosexual rock star isn't exactly Kosher these days, but he does a great job sending up some of rock's excesses at the time. 

Winslow comes across as an amalgamation of Randy Newman and Warren Zevon, or a more "serious" face on rock, but honestly I don't see Williams and De Palma really taking sides.  If anything, both the Juicy Fruits and the Beach Bums, both nostalgia groups with the former being close in spirt to Sha Na Na, get an even bigger skewering.  All the bands, by the way, are played by the same group, and each doing different styles, with the Undeads' "Somebody Super Like You" getting a bit of airplay - in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the same place where the movie itself played for over a year, and about the only place outside of France where the movie had any popularity in its first run.

While Paul Williams's performance as the vain and evil Swan is definitely memorable, Winslow's transformation into the phantom - with steel teeth, black lipstick and a bird-like mask, complete with black suit and cape - is probably the one thing most remembered from this movie.  With his voice gone he is provided with a box that allows him to speak and, although they went for the straight robot look rather than the bird references from the movie, his appearance is what ultimately influenced the visuals for Daft Punk.  

Despite all the camp, dark humor and outright slapstick apparent in the first part of the film, Phantom of the Paradise is still quite a dark movie.  While there have been plenty of parodies of the music business, and while it is tempting to say this is an exaggeration, the truth is many managers and executives tightly controlled their artists' finances and used their chemical dependencies to get them to do what they want.  This is also outright honest about the treatment of women, with one audition for singers being no more than an excuse for Swan's male entourage to throw women on a couch and have their way with them.  And, surprisingly for the time, it is not played for laughs.  

This is a cult film for a reason, and there are places where the budget shows itself quite clearly as De Palma still seems to have been getting his sea legs as a director.  The ending, just like the ending of the Hammer film that inspired it, gets a bit muddled and comes about abruptly and, like that film, the final reveal of the Phantom's face is left to the end rather than coming early on.  For me it was nice to revisit it once again, this time in a restored version, as well as having much more understanding about the music scene at the time.  This, along with Sisters, still remain his best films prior to Carrie, and even though they are quite different movies they both show a brilliant young director coming into his own. 

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Time: 91 minutes
Starring: Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli
Director: Brian De Palma

 

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