Music, Gore, and Rock n’ Roll: The beautiful Oddity that is Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Directed by Brian De Palma, music by Paul Williams
Music is arguably the most efficient art form for eliciting emotion. Music is like the ninja of artistic expression: swooping in, and hitting you right in the feels before you even know what’s happening. A few beats of a song and your foot is tapping, or suddenly you’re thinking about a past love, a memory, a place and time. Music creates a feeling, tells a story with just sound and does it usually in under five minutes. Since our ancestors decided to bang some sticks together, the love of music remains integral to the human experience. Everyone loves music, but add the power of music to the power of the moving picture and what you have is a beautiful marriage of light and sound.
In the early years of film, when movies were taking their first steps, filmmakers knew that music would be an important part of the storytelling process. Music could change a scene; hell, it could make a scene. Just think how many iconic movie scenes in modern classic cinema owe their notoriety to the songs featured in them. Mr. Blonde soft stepping to “Stuck in the Middle with you” in Reservoir Dogs; Renton trying to escape the cops as “Lust for Life” blares in Trainspotting, or “Also Sprach Zarathustra” setting the tone for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Music and movies go together like peanut butter and jelly, and because of that Musicals have always been a big part of movie history.
One of my all-time favourite amalgamations of these arts came with the advent of Rock and Roll. Often when we think of rock opera we think of Rocky Horror Picture Show. But there’s another movie, just as macabre, just as weird, and it came out a year before: Brian De Palma’s insanely wonderful Phantom of the Paradise. While not exactly original, this film is quite a unique experience. In fact, it’s a modern retelling of the classic Phantom of the Opera with splashes of Goeth and The Picture of Dorian Gray for good measure. I don’t intend to bore you with the details of how Phantom of the Paradise came to be, but it should be noted that for some reason in the early 70’s De Palma decided to make a somewhat ridiculous rock opera. In doing so he enlisted the musical genius of Paul Williams (who has unfortunately spent the last few years in some sort of entertainment limbo. Whether by forced exile, or just public neglect, his “genius” status has only recently, and rightfully, been re-established.) Williams is probably most famous for writing many of the great Muppets’ songs; that may sound a tad trivial, but if you take the time to revisit “Rainbow Connection” you’ll soon discover the composite greatness of the song. I digress.
Phantom of the Paradise heavily references Phantom of the Opera. The difference is that instead of a jilted composer haunting an Opera, we have a jilted songwriter terrorizing a rock club in the 70s. That composer is Winslow Leach, played with utter zest by the late William Finley. Leach after having his music stolen by the devilish music producer Swan (Paul Williams) attempts to confront the producer, only to be beaten and framed for drug dealing. After time in jail and following a number of other unfortunate events, Leach is left disfigured by a record press, and without the ability to sing or talk. So like any rational person would do, Leach decides to don a cape and mask becoming the Phantom.
The Phantom attempts to exact his revenge by planting a bomb at the paradise during a dress rehearsal. The sequence is done beautifully with a split screen juxtaposing the action on stage with the Phantom planting the bomb, and finally culminating in a single shot. The split screen is now a De Palma signature, but here, we see it in its infancy and it fits perfectly. Following the Phantom’s foray into pyrotechnics he attacks Swan in hopes of killing him and exacting his revenge. But Swan slyly brokers a deal with Leach. Working together, Swan assures him that this will be the only way Leach will let the world see his masterpiece, his cantata, his rock version of Faust.
For some reason the Phantom believes him. Maybe it’s the fact that Swan gives Leach his voice back thanks to a Darth Vader like voice box, or it’s the opportunity for Leach to see his beloved Phoenix perform, but he takes the deal. The deal, of course, does not come without its catch, a contract to be specific, a massive archaic looking document, which must be signed in blood, (nothing sinister going on here). Operatic double crosses and devastating consequences follow.
Phantom of the Paradise is often compared to Rocky Horror, but that really only has to do with the uniqueness of their genre. Sure, Beef and Dr. Frank N. Furter are both androgynous glam rockers, but aside from the aesthetics, they are very different films with very different intentions. Rocky Horror is really more about absurdity, taboo, shock value, and wonderful music. Phantom of the Paradise is not without its absurdity but De Palma uses the absurdity as a satiric blade to take a cut at the music industry, and really the entertainment industry all together. We’ve all heard of artists getting screwed over with record contracts over the years, or artists changing everything about themselves just to be famous. But here, the concept of evil record producers is taken to its artistic extreme through the literally soulless Swan.
By today’s standards these criticisms may seem obvious, but in the early 70’s, just before the punk era, it was truly profound. It also puts perspective on the way we consume media, and the idolatry we hold for celebrities. Our society loves new and up and coming talent, and these new, exciting artists can do no wrong. They are marketed, turned into a product, and for a while we eat up everything about them.
Time and time again we see waves of these “manias”, whether its with Elvis, the Beatles, the boy bands of the 90s, and to a lesser extent today, Bieber. In the Phantom of the Paradise Swan lives in this idyllic state, with feverous fans devouring every new band he creates, every new talent he discovers. But like our love of idols, the one thing we love more than building these artists up, is tearing them down. We are a fickle bunch, and as quickly as we learn to love our new idols, we destroy them. Swan encounters this quite literally in the film’s final act. This is where I would argue that Phantom of the Paradise sets itself apart from the likes of Rocky Horror in its depth and its biting satire.
Phantom of the Paradise was ahead of its time, and audiences and critics alike didn’t know what to make of it. That’s not say to say that the film was a total flop. But the film was a success in two particular specific and very different places in the world: Paris, France, and oddly enough, Winnipeg, Manitoba*. Like any great work of art ahead of its time, Phantom has a legacy. And while it may not be well known, Phantom has influenced a lot. Like The Velvet Underground before it, the number of people who saw Phantom wasn’t a lot, but who saw it was what was important. In Paris two young French men were able to bond about it. Their names were Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, better known as the robotic duo, Daft Punk. Their appearance alone owes much to the leather clad Phantom, but they even collaborated with Paul Williams on their most recent album, resulting in a very Paradise’esque number “Touch”, which actually serves as a nice compliment to Phantom of the Paradise and Leach’s loss of humanity.
Paul Williams music in the film may not have the flashy catchiness of “Time Warp”, but like most of Paul Williams’ compositions it’s both subtle and melodramatic. Rolling piano, wonderful melodies, and a rock ballad with hints of rag time. The music works exceptionally well on its own, and I would advise viewers to take a moment turn the lights down and listen to Paul Williams perform Faust. The movie provides segments of the song in various forms, but to really feel the thing, to really experience it best, is to hear it on its own and in its entirety.
There is so much going on in Paradise I could go on for days, but like any album or film, this one is something to experience. Phantom of the Paradise is a funny and shocking film with wonderful music and performances. Don’t take my word for it: experience it for yourself. (But if I were forced to give my own biased rating, I’d give it 10/10 Phantoms. )
By Ryan Schuurman Hess. Ryan’s feature of Phantom of the Paradise is part of our ongoing film review series: Lust for Life: The Music of Film, where Step On magazine writers take a look at all the films about music and made of great music that are the soundtrack of our lives.
* In 2005 and 2008 Winnipeg even hosted Phantompalooza, a Phantom dedicated festival, that reunited many of the surviving cast members.