In 1975, 20th Century Fox released an offbeat musical that would be a box office bomb and eventual cult movie sensation. For decades, the film would play to packed houses at midnight. That film, of course, is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Fuck The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Let me be clear: when I say that, by no means am I aiming to denigrate the denizens of midnight movies, keeping oddball experiences alive. I mean, the experience is much like a country square dance, the moves are mapped out in order well beforehand. Rocky Horror isn’t a cinematic experience as much as it’s a window into fandom. Seeing Rocky Horror at midnight is 80% audience, 20% cinema. I say this as someone who has seen Rocky Horror quite a few times, yet I still couldn’t tell you about the film’s themes other than the virtues of transvestism. I couldn’t sing more than a line or two from a song.
A year prior to Rocky Horror, 20th Century Fox released an offbeat musical that would be a box office bomb and eventual cult movie sensation. While it took longer than it should to become a bonafide cult classic, that movie is, of course, Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise. A madcap mashup of Faust and Phantom of the Opera, Phantom of the Paradise blends musical, camp, comedy, and horror into a searing indictment of the entertainment industry, and how we, the audience, consume it.
An awkward looking songwriter, Winslow Leach (William Finley), has his music stolen by the mysterious hitmaker of rock ‘n’ roll, Swan (Paul Williams). Shortly after meeting Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a talented singer trying to get her break, Swan has Winslow framed and sent to Sing Sing. Driven mad by the wrongs done to him, Winslow escapes to terrorize the offices of Death Records, Swan’s record label. But Winslow has an accident, his face is horribly scarred by a record press. Thought dead, Winslow haunts Swan’s new rock club, The Paradise. Disfigured and mute, Winslow and Swan strike a deal, a lifetime contract signed in blood. Winslow will finish his cantata about Faust under the impression that Phoenix will sing it, but Swan, as he does, betrays Winslow and gives the music to a new singer, Beef (Gerrit Graham). This drives Winslow on an unending quest for vengeance. However, Winslow is under contract to Swan, and Swan is under contract to the Devil.
From the opening song, Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye, a song about a singer who kills himself to boost record sales, Phantom has an acute sense about how death effects how we view pop culture. One would only have to look at the boost in sales following the deaths of Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson to see how true Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye still is today. After the Phantom has taken out a musical act mid-performance, the audience is ecstatic. Swan tells his lackey, “Look at them. They’ve really been entertained. They never want the show to stop.” This only inspires Swan to stage an assassination during the next night’s performance which will be broadcast nationwide on television. When giving his reasoning, Swan says what countless producers of trashy reality shows have said as well – “That’s entertainment!”
If there’s only one reason to watch Phantom of the Paradise, it’s the sequence to the song Upholstery. A split-screen with 2 cameras filming simultaneously, it’s an homage to the Orson Welles classic, Touch of Evil. The Phantom places a bomb in the trunk of a prop car while one of Swan’s groups, The Beach Bums, rehearse their new song. One side of the screen follows the bomb, the other following the group. Already an impressive shot(s), nothing is as impressive as the fact that De Palma got it in one take. De Palma tosses in other nods to classic films, like a shower scene in reference to Psycho and Expressionistic sets like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Phantom is one of a many De Palma films that perfectly illustrate why he’s been a favorite among cinephiles for decades – sharp commentary, tightly constructed, proper use of extreme wide-angle lenses.
As much as the film is about Winslow’s tragic demise, it’s Paul Williams as Swan who steals the show. At a recent Q&A following a screening of Phantom, Williams called his character “a Reader’s Digest version of Phil Spector.” Composing all the film’s songs, Williams was a famed songwriter for softer acts like Three Dog Night and The Carpenters. With the Phantom soundtrack, Williams is unleashed. Shifting between doo-wop to mournful ballads to an aggressive glam rock to a Beach Boys knock off, the sounds of the film are all over the place. Williams has been open about his struggles with addiction and the loneliness of those days, which leads the mournful ballads like Faust and Old Souls take on an extra feel of sorrow. At that same Q&A, Williams said he’s gotten a number of jobs because of Phantom – 2 recent notable ones are his work with Daft Punk and a musical version of Pan’s Labyrinth for Guillermo Del Toro. Rounding out his geek credentials, Williams wrote the songs for The Muppet Movie, most notably Rainbow Connection, and appeared in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the 5th and final installment of the original series, as an ape. He also appeared on The Tonight Show in full ape makeup.
As if having a music mogul in the employ of the Devil wasn’t bad enough, Phantom also highlights the seedy, manipulative manner with which those exploit their position to get what they want. Though Swan exploits his power with a bed full of prospective singers, Philbin (George Mammoli), Swan’s lackey, holds auditions, aka the casting couch. A kind of side-villain, Philbin hands out drugs like they’re Tic-Tacs. Money, drugs, sex, and power are all exploited for their own hedonistic desires.
Speaking of hedonistic musicians from the ‘70s, did you know Jimmy Page held an under-aged girl prisoner for years? Well, if that wasn’t reason enough to hate Led Zeppelin, they also provide the cause of a large number of unplanned visual oddities in the film. In the original version of Phantom, Swan’s record label was called Swan Song. Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, got word of the film’s fictional record label and threatened to sue. Before the film’s release, De Palma and editor Paul Hirsch painstakingly cropped shots and inserted matte work to cover up the offending logo. In some instances, the changes aren’t noticeable. In others, it’s really apparent that changes were made. Fucking Zeppelin, man.
In honor of Phantom of the Paradise turning 40 years old, Scream Factory, the horror subsidiary of Shout! Factory, just issued a new blu-ray of the film and it looks great. With vocal fans like Edgar Wright, the cult of Phantom will continue to grow in the coming years. It’s a lasting work because it has everything a great cult movie should have. It’s a singular work with great artistry, crazy music, and an absolutely bonkers sense of humor. It says something very true about the manner that society views celebrity and death, and the weird manner we handle when the two meet. In the coming years, countless film buffs will request The Hell of It, the film’s closing number, to play at their funerals. I know I will. I’m not sure if Phantom is De Palma’s finest work – I think it’s Blow Out – but it’s definitely the most fun, one might even say, “Tasty.”