Tuesday, November 20, 2012
My Favorite Movies: Phantom of the Paradise
When people talk about the great movie musicals, there's usually one glaring omission. Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise is a cult classic that, while it's inspired a loyal fanbase, hasn't managed the pop culture prominence of similar offbeat rock musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Little Shop of Horrors. But it deserves better; while comparable to those classics, it's also unique. While De Palma has often gotten flak for imitating and ripping off his forebears, in Phantom he manages to synthesize several classic stories and images into a blistering satire of the music industry set to a truly killer song score. It's one of the most purely cinematic musicals ever made, not only original to the medium but dependent on its tricks. And at the core of all the craziness is something heartfelt.
Winslow Leach (the recently departed William Finley) is a struggling songwriter who, performing one night at a club, catches the attention of the mysterious music mogul Swan (Paul Williams). Swan's agent Philbin (George Memmoli) convinces Winslow to give his boss a look at his life's work, an epic rock cantata telling the story of Faust, and then promptly disappears with the manuscript. In attempting to see Swan, Winslow is ensorcelled by the lovely, soulful singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper) but ends up beaten to a pulp, framed for drug possession, and sent to Sing-Sing. He escapes and tries to destroy Swan's record press, but is horribly mutilated in the process, slinking off into the night and left for dead. Now without a face or a voice, Winslow sneaks into Swan's new rock concert hall, The Paradise, and donning costume and mask, begins to wreak havoc- that is, until Swan makes contact with him and offers him another deal, to rewrite his cantata for Phoenix. But this devil's bargain, literally inked in blood, quickly turns sour, and the Phantom's obsession with his work again becomes deadly.
This is a film about a lot of things, one of the most prominent being the mistreatment of art. From the start, Winslow's work is misunderstood, and while it speaks on some primal level to Swan, he insists on changing it into an accessible pop confection. Paul Williams' brilliant song score is largely built on parallels- not only is Winslow's "Faust" explicitly converted into the beach nostalgia anthem "Upholstery", but the Phantom's own theme (played during a beautiful creation montage) morphs into a ghoulish glam rock number played by a KISS-esque troupe who dismember the crowd with razor-sharp instruments, and the love song "Old Souls" is made into a brutal statement of nihilism for the Paradise's newest star, the macho-to-the-point-of-overcompensation Beef (Gerritt Graham, though his vocals are by Ray Kennedy.) Swan isn't simply greedy- he seems to have pop banality in his blood, and he removes Phoenix from the lead role simply because he abhors perfection in anyone but himself. Phil Spector is the obvious parallel here, though the music scene had and has plenty more unethical and overbearing producers where he came from.
The film is also a morality play, in its twisted fashion- though most of the characters are pretty damned amoral, there's still a sense that evil is a tangible force in this world, and perhaps goodness is as well. The Phantom's revenge is by turns righteous and sadistic- Beef, who comes across as a mincing queen off-stage (part of the script that has aged very poorly) is ultimately sort of innocent and doesn't quite deserve the nasty fate the Phantom visits on him for stealing Phoenix's spotlight. He's ridiculous, but not evil, and the Phantom does go too far in that and other cases; he's ultimately damned as much as Swan, and must seek to redeem himself. Phoenix is the purest of the lot, but she's in danger of corruption as her star rises. Fame and the lure of the spotlight corrupt everyone, but there seems to be no other way for music to escape.
The film is an absurdist riot of color and sound, shot beautifully on a fairly low budget and maintaining a cartoonish silliness which lets it be sincere in the moments that count. De Palma's love of visual tricks and nods to classic cinema works very well in a dark and offbeat story like this; there's no need for the patina of realism that suspense thrillers try to maintain, and the sense of visual freedom De Palma maintains sets this apart from musicals which struggle against holdover conventions from the stage.
And the performers. Finley is a unique physical presence who stands out even under a mask, Williams makes a surprisingly terrifying villain, and Jessica Harper is luminous and soulful. In a clever joke on the potential of soundmixing (in an age before autotune, no less), Swan restores the Phantom's speech via clever engineering, but specifically gives him his own singing voice. Three actors- Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, and Harold Oblong- play first the 50s nostalgia band the Juicy Fruits, than the surf rockers the Beach Bums, then the Undead, each time trading off the lead vocal. Memmoli doesn't do any singing but distinguishes himself in a great and funny character turn.
It pains me to think that we live in a world where this film is not properly appreciated as the landmark in film musicals that it is. It's smart, soulful, imaginative, and 100% a work of film, telling its story in cuts and movements as well as music and lyrics. It was a commercial flop on first release, attained a cult following, but still it took the French to give us a proper special edition Blu-Ray release. The film holds up as one of De Palma's finest, if not the finest. The more people who discover its odd beauty, the better.
Words and Music by Paul Williams
Written and Directed by Brian De Palma