Looking back at Brian De Palma's Phantom Of The Paradise

News Jeff Szpirglas 21 Nov 2011 - 12:56

It’s Brian De Palma’s 1974 musical take on The Phantom Of The Opera, and it’s quite odd. But as Jeff explains, Phantom Of The Paradise is also rather good…

From Rod Serling’s moody opening monologue, right to the end credit sequence repackaging the entire film into a music video, it’s clear there’s a passionate vision behind Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise. Here’s an example of a creative team able to squeeze the muscle of the studio system to make something idiosyncratic, groovy, and just plain weird. It was the 1970s, after all. Now pushing 40, is Phantom merely an interesting relic of an era, or does it stand the test of time?

This 1974 film takes the plot from Phantom Of The Opera and the Faust legend and churns them together into a unique brew. Failed singer-songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley) signs a blood pact with seedy record producer Swan (Paul Williams). The deal goes sour; Leach attempts to steal back the recording masters to his cantata and gets his head mangled in a record press.

In typical De Palma fashion, this scene is simultaneously played for laughs, horror, and pathos. Leach is resurrected as the Phantom, stalking Swan’s new rock coliseum, the Paradise. Here he tries to keep his unrequited love, Phoenix (Jessica Harper), from suffering a similar fate.

Other plot elements are thrown into the mix, including a nifty take on Oscar Wilde’s Picture Of Dorian Gray. You could say there’s too much plot in here for it all to work, and you’d have a good point. But part of the charm of the movie is admiring how much De Palma has crammed into it. Sure, at certain points, it bursts at the seams with exposition, but at least we’re dealing with something unique and original. It’s hard to envision a studio today giving a big push to a satirical blend of horror movie trappings that mock current music trends. You’ve got to respect this movie, even if it ain’t your bag.

Although it bears the title Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise, it’s a film that is the product of great collaboration. The editing by Paul Hirsch, cinematography by Larry Pizer, sets by Jack Fisk, and costumes by Rosanna Norton all come together into a work of art – yes, art - that literally hums with energy.

Paul Williams does double duty, playing the eerie record producer Swan and acting as composer of the songs. Williams’s songwriting work for movies in the 70s was top-notch (The Muppet Movie, Bugsy Malone, A Star Is Born), and this is arguably the best of the bunch. He successfully apes a variety of musical styles, from melodic ballads (Old Souls, Faust) to 60s pop pastiches (Upholstery and Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye) to glam rock excess (Life At Last, Somebody Super Like You) and even comes up with heavy vaudevillian power-pop (The Hell Of It).  The lyrics are both witty (the Beach Boys parody Upholstery begins with the hilarious line, “Carburetors, man, that’s what life is all about”) and heartfelt.

Williams’s tuneful song score forms the backbone of the whole movie. De Palma doesn’t just put singers on stage and film them, but uses each musical number to let loose with his cavalcade of cinematic tricks. Upholstery is a vehicle for a split-screen take on the bomb-in-the-car gag from the beginning of Welles’ Touch Of Evil.

Phantom’s Theme is an inspired montage with creative use of superimposed images of things like melting candles, piano keyboards, and Swan’s ultra-cool table shaped like a gold record. Most notable is the song trilogy that opens the Paradise, as performed by The Undeads, Gerrit Graham’s hilarious Beef, and Jessica Harper’s Phoenix. The songs are over-the-top, and De Palma is at his best lensing the glitter paint, writhing crowds, and decapitating effigies. All the while, the Phantom leaps and swings about backstage with the same maniacal glee we can imagine De Palma is having as the film builds momentum and horrific frenzy.

It’s clearly a movie that everyone involved with had one hell of a time making. Each frame of this flick literally pulsates with colour and movement. Watch the way pre-Phantom Finley races in and out of buildings, shot from low angles with lenses bearing serious fish-eye. De Palma plays with every trick in his bag: iris-outs, sped-up camera, and enough Steadicam shots to do Kubrick proud.

Cinematographer Larry Pizer bathes the performers in rich, deep shadows when they aren’t singing, while scenes set on-stage are saturated with a wide palette of colour – from the dayglo hues for the Beach Bums to the chiaroscuro tones for the Undeads, which look like KISS doing Dr Caligari. Even an early static shot of George Memmoli’s Philbin conversing with an off-screen Williams is set against unusual light playing off the nightclub floor.

Jack Fisk’s sets are hyperbolically claustrophobic, trapping characters in mirrored corridors, or the cramped recording studio so full of mixers, microphone cords, and dials that it looks like the interior of a spaceship. The costumes, particularly the chrome eagle mask for Finley’s Phantom, are inspired. At the very least, Phantom is 90 minutes of eye and ear candy, the likes of which we don’t often see these days.

There’s also something to be said about movies that don’t feel the need to inundate audiences through rapid editing alone. Ace editor Paul Hirsch can cut quick sequences when the story needs to race, but the filmmakers also take the time to linger when need be. The low-key rendition of Faust by William Finley (sung by Williams) looks fabulous, with the camera swirling 360 degrees around Finley, giving viewers the time to know the character through his music.

What doesn’t sit as well are some of the politically incorrect jabs that were acceptable a decade ago. Williams’ first line, “Get this fag out of here,” just leaves a bad taste, but thankfully the homophobia is kept to a minimum, and Gerrit Graham’s stereotype Beef comes off as the most likable character in the whole movie. He also gets the best lines (“Man, you better get yourself a castrato for this, 'cause it's a little out of my range”).

De Palma, particularly during this early stretch in his career, is criticized for plundering Hitchcock and a host of other filmmakers. Sure, he crafts sequences that play out shot-for-shot from other movies. But he does so with his tongue planted firmly in cheek, and a sense of style often absent in lesser craftspeople.

While this movie has a Psycho-rip-off shower sequence, the payoff, with the knife replaced by a toilet plunger, is a hoot. So is the movie. The karma’s so thick in this flick that you need an aqualung to breathe, man.

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