Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Phantom of the Paradise: Singing, Music, and a Crazed, Disfigured Composer on the Loose

Following his Hitchcock-inspired 1973 thriller, Sisters, Brian De Palma may have predictably directed another movie in the same vein. Instead, the director surprised critics and audiences with a film that was evidently a retelling of both the legend of Faust and Gaston Leroux' Phantom of the Opera. Incorporating elements of the thriller genre with a fantastic storyline, De Palma presented to the world Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a rock musical in only the way that he could tell it.

Winslow Leach (William Finley) is an aspiring musician/singer/composer, having nearly completed his masterpiece: a cantata based on the story of Faust. Things seem to be looking up when Swan (Paul Williams), a lucrative record producer who is never photographed, expresses interest in Winslow's work. Unfortunately, Swan wants the man's music, not the man himself. When Winslow realizes that Swan is stealing his music, he attempts to infiltrate the "Swanage" (Swan's monumental estate) and is consequently framed for pushing heroin and tossed in prison (quite appropriately in Sing Sing). The defamed composer escapes and, while sabotaging one of Swan's buildings for his label, Death Records, is disfigured when his face is caught in a record press.

Meanwhile, Swan is planning on opening his new concert hall, the Paradise, utilizing Winslow's cantata. Winslow slips into the Paradise, dons a costume and mask and becomes a menacing presence, terrifying the performers. Despite Winslow's deformity and the loss of his voice, Swan recognizes him and convinces him to rewrite his composition, to be sung by Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a woman whom Winslow met at an audition and with whom he has become enamored. The Phantom is doubtful but agrees to the terms and signs a contract (and is given his voice back electronically by Swan). However, upon completion of the cantata, Swan has Winslow locked away, and the Phantom swears vengeance.

Phantom of the Paradise
is first and foremost a musical, with words and music handled by Williams, who also provided the Phantom's singing voice. Williams' music is terrific, a skillful intermingling of rock and pop music, with upbeat numbers as impressive as the ballads. Williams gives a strong showing as Swan, making the character believable with his aggressive mannerisms and his persuasive techniques, an antithesis to Williams' bright smile and short stature. Finley, having played the eerie and quaint Emil in De Palma's Sisters, ups the ante in Phantom with a performance that is gleefully theatrical. Although partially hidden behind makeup and mask, it is still Finley as the Phantom, and one of his best scenes is when he practices speaking with his new electronic box, methodically repeating Phoenix' name (and exposing his metal teeth -- a result of his "volunteering" at Sing Sing).

The highlight of Phantom of the Paradise is Jessica Harper, in her feature film debut. She is an exceptional actress, but she also has a sublime singing voice, deep and alluringly smoky, not unlike Karen Carpenter (and, as it happens, two of The Carpenters' hits, "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "We've Only Just Begun", were co-written by Williams). It's not surprising that, when Phoenix sings two solo numbers, "Special to Me" and "Old Souls", De Palma showcases Harper's performances. In fact, during the latter song, the inordinately rowdy audience at the Paradise is quiet and attentive (the only time in the course of the film). Actress Harper has appeared in a number of notable films, including Dario Argento's classic Suspiria (1977), Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (1980), and the pseudo-sequel to the cult 1975 musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Shock Treatment (1981). More recently, Harper has written books and released albums aimed at children. She has two daughters of her own who are featured in her books and music. Harper's husband and father to her children is Tom Rothman, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment and founder of one of its subsidiaries, Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Gerrit Graham is delightfully droll as Beef, the goth rocker hired by Swan to perform Winslow's cantata. Beef is obnoxious and boisterous onstage, but flamboyant and a tad wispy when not performing. When he is explicitly threatened by the Phantom, he has his bags packed and is out the door while a line of people are waiting to see the show! (His suitcases, of course, are adorned with glitter.) George Memmoli, as Philbin, Swan's crony, is likewise humorous.

De Palma employs an abundance of style and ingenuity to Phantom of the Paradise. While there is no Hitchcockian plot, he does include a parody of the shower scene from Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). While Beef is singing in the shower, the Phantom slowly approaches and uses a toilet plunger to silence the rocker, telling him that only Phoenix will be singing his songs. De Palma's trademark split screen is used during a sequence in which the Phantom plants a ticking time bomb in a prop car, which is then rolled onto the stage in the midst of an ongoing performance. One small but very clever method that the director used was the way in which he censored a curse from Philbin (likely to retain a PG rating). The character is speaking to Swan as a stage is being cleared of instruments in the background. But when Philbin reaches an apparent expletive, feedback from an amp prevents it from being heard.

When released in the U.S. in October 1974, Phantom of the Paradise performed poorly. However, two months later, it was released in Winnipeg, Canada, where it was hugely successful and played in theatres for four months. Likewise, the film's soundtrack sold very well, and the stores had trouble keeping it in stock. In June 1975, Paul Williams held a concert in Winnipeg, performing two sold-out shows, with ads referencing the film and Phantom of the Paradise playing in theatres again. Phantom would occasionally play theatrically through the '90s and was even shown in IMAX. In 2005, the movie was celebrated at the Phantompalooza, with a concert and a cast reunion. A Phantompalooza 2 was held the following year.

Originally, Swan's label, Death Records, was a subsidiary of parent company, Swan Song Enterprises. Unfortunately, prior to the film's release, Led Zeppelin created its own label with the very same moniker. While De Palma was able to cut or hide most signs of "Swan Song," there are instances of the original name. In one case, during an impromptu press conference (as Swan introduces Beef to reporters and photographers), a podium has clearly been matted with the Death Records logo (which is simply a bird turned upside down, apparently dead). Throughout the movie, there are occasional glimpses of the Swan Song name, usually on buildings or equipment.

Actress Sissy Spacek was credited as Set Dresser on
Phantom of the Paradise, and Jack Fisk, whom she married in 1974, was Production Designer. Spacek would star in her breakout role two years later, in another De Palma film, Carrie.

At least one of the movie posters for Phantom of the Paradise defined the film as such: "The most highly acclaimed horror phantasy of our time." The same poster had the Phantom pictured as a monster, seeming to pull along a reluctant, scantily clad woman. To market the film, the horror and fantasy (or, perhaps, otherworldly) aspects were being used to draw an audience. But more than anything else, De Palma's 1974 film is a musical. It is music that drives the narrative, motivates the characters, and entertains the viewers. And it is the music that has helped Phantom of the Paradise, over 35 years after its release, remain a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable experience.


  1. Sark, this may be my favorite of your many fine film reviews! Although I've seen PHANTOM (it was a popular "midnight movie" when I was in college), I knew very little of its backstory. As you say say, it is foremost about the music and that is what I remember best. "Old Souls" is a haunting number and I too love how De Palma films it (later, De Palma would shoot a "fake concert" video for Bruce Springsteen). I even like the 1950s homage "Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye" (performed by the Juicy Fruits?), complete with spoken musical bridge. Indeed, Paul Williams was one of the great pop song writers of the 1970s. Acting-wise, I think this is easily his best movie. But I also enjoyed him as a guest star in the offbeat 1990s TV series "Picket Fences." He played a character who wanted to sing a meaningful song at his sister's funeral. When he started singing The Muppets' "The Rainbow Connection" (written by Williams), I started to laugh. But turned out to be a beautiful arrangement and touching turned around my whole perception of the song. Anyway, I digress--I loved your review and now want to see PHANTOM again.

  2. Rick, thank you for the info on Paul Williams! I don't know much about him, except that he wrote the LOVE BOAT theme (but just the lyrics, I believe). And I, too, like the opening number by The Juicy Fruits. In the movie, Swan keeps changing the band's image and name, so they move from a '50s band to the Beach Boys-esque Beach Bums, and then the gothic The Undeads!

  3. Your review was great! Yet, I must confess I've never seen or heard of this film. I often wonder where you and Rick come up with some of your film topics. I don't watch a lot of offbeat movies unless they are in the Criterion Collection or the 1001 book...I am so limited! LOL! Anyway, you did a terrific job with this post.

  4. Sark , This was one of the Cult Films of the 70's along with Rick and my personal favorite O Lucky Man and of course Rocky Horror. I was working in a record store when the film was first released and I remember the soundtrack LP sold OK. Paul wrote one of the Carpenters first hits We Only Just Begun, which was first a commerical for The Crocker Bank, Paul sang the song.Paul along with half the singers in So Cal tried out for The Monkees and of course did not make it.

  5. Thanks, Kim! I'm usually afraid to recommend an offbeat film to people who might not watch one, because what if he/she watches it, hates it, and then forever avoids offbeat films?! But PHANTOM is one I can recommend, so hopefully you might someday catch it.

    Paul (of the Café, not Williams), do you know if it's true that Richard Carpenter actually saw the commercial on TV and got in contact with Paul (Williams, not of the Café) to turn it into a Carpenters ditty? That was the way it played in THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY, but I never knew if it really happened like that. And by the way, Paul Williams would've made an awesome Monkee.

  6. Sark, what a soaring review of DePalma's rock musical! I have more fun reading your reviews. I haven't seen this but am able to envision it from your carefully chosen descriptions and intriguing photographs. I think I would find "Phantom" captivating!

    I am also a fan of Paul Williams and Karen Carpenter. I saw him sing in "Picket Fences" and thought it was quite moving, too, Rick. And I truly enjoy hearing a gifted alto and Karen was the master of that range.

    Fascinating musical and remarkable review, Sark. Loved it!

  7. Sark ,the movie has it right(Sort of). Paul sang on the spot, Richard herd it and thought it could be something he and Karen could do.Richard at the time was not yet producing the carpenters. Paul wound up getting a recording contract on the same label as the Carpenters ,A&M records. Richard & Karen were going to Long Beach State at the time .I know this to be true because Richard's songwrtiting partner 's ex-girl friend(Mary Nance of the group The SunShine Company)was a friend)and we went to college together BTW The show "Pickett Fences" was shot "down the road" from me in Monrovia, CA.

  8. Marvelous review, Sark. I was having a baby when it was released and, having other things to do, never saw it. I am ashamed to say that although I know about it, I still haven't seen it! You have made it a necessity. Do you know if it shows on TV much? I wonder if Netflix would have it (I bet it would). Thanks again for your usual wonderful work.

  9. Sark, I forgot to comment on your terrific photos, especially the ones of the Phantom in the shower and Phoenix smiling. By the way, inspired by your amazing review, I was surfing the web about PHANTOM and found a funky site of interest:

  10. Thanks, toto and Becky. I hope you'll see the film soon! Becky, I'm almost positive that it's at Netflix. It's definitely on DVD. I think I saw TV only one time, and that was probably about 15 years ago.

    Rick, I've seen that site, and it's great! Thanks for the link. It was made by a Winnipeg fan, and it has some very rare clips and stills of behind the scenes and deleted material. But be sure you've seen the film first!

    Pauk, thank you for more info on the other Paul!

    1. I appreciate the kind words about my site... but I'm not a "Winnipeg fan." I mean, I like Winnipeg as much as anybody, but I'm in the San Francisco area.


      Principal Archivist

  11. Sark, I love all the songs you mentioned in your Awesome review!! I'm surprised, I have never heard of this movie. This sounds like a movie my husband would really like. I may get this movie for him as a surprise..

  12. Paul, I loved all of your information about Paul Williams and the Carpenters. Thanks for sharing with us!

  13. A note from a Winnipegger who was part of the dream! I still remember the date the first event was announced (Monday,March 7th, 2005~my mom's and where I was when I read it! That moment alone could almost qualify as 'otherworldly'.

    I mention mom's birthday because of something she said, back in the day; "They won't remember that movie next year!" Yuh, whatever, ma! The other irony is that she loaned me the money to pay for the ticket to Phan pal 2, which was the full cast reunion and concert. And while that event blew my mind completely out of the water, THE single most memorable moment, for me, anyway, was being able to meet and hug William Finley (Winslow, of course!) and say a simple THANK YOU. That character did more to impact my creative views and idealism than anyone since!