Welcome to my latest look at Hollywood’s best directors (best in my opinion). After a summer break, it’s time to get back at it, and this time I’m featuring the works of Brian DePalma. Unlike my other retrospectives, I’m not going to go through all of his works, but simply the ones I feel are representative of him, or something unique. This week we start off with The Phantom of the Paradise, perhaps one of the odder films in his catalog.
By the time Brian DePalma made Phantom, he’d already started creating his status as one of the top directors working. Starting with documentaries in the early ‘60s to low budget comedies at the end of the decade and early ‘70s, DePalma made his mark in the indie film scene long before Hollywood. When he finally did make the move, his first experience there was so awful it would be years before he went back.
Sisters was the first of the movies he made upon his return, one of the first of his films that could be seen as a “DePalma movie”. We’ll come back to Sisters another time, as we’re here to talk about The Phantom Of The Paradise, a musical/comedy mish mash that shouldn’t really work-and doesn’t-but is such goofy fun you can forgive it for all of its shortcomings. Take a liberal scoop of Faust, a cup of Phantom of the Opera, and sprinkle in some Dorian Gray for seasoning, and you have Phantom of the Paradise. Okay, update for modern times, and then you have PotP.
Phantom opens with narration by the one and only Rod Serling. Really, once you have that, everything else is bound to go downhill. Serling is really hard to beat. As the narration ends the film proper starts and we’re in the midst of a song by the “Juicy Fruits”, which by the way was the name of a great gay bar I went to once. The Juicy Fruits play a 50’s style rock, and not in any particularly interesting way, but they’re not meant to be interesting, they’re meant to be a commercial success and they are. During their break, a long haired hippie weird freak starts to play the piano, and sing a song of his own composition. Watching him is legendary record producer Swan, who thinks his music would be perfect to open up his new club, The Paradise. Swan has his bodyguard, Philbin, steal it, under the guise of Swan wanting to listen to it. A month passes and Winslow Leech, the songwriter goes to Swan’s record label, Death Records, where he’s promptly thrown out.
Undeterred he shows up at an audition where he meets and falls in love with Phoenix, the only singer who has any ability to sing whatsoever. Caught, he’s thrown out, beaten up, and framed for drug dealing.
Sentenced to serve time at Sing Sing, his teeth are removed and replaced with metallic dentures that look a bit too sharp for prison. Leech escapes ad makes a beeline for Swan’s offices to get his music back. During this almost slapstick part, Leech gets his head stuck in a record press, leaving one side of his face a bloody mess. After sneaking into the costume department at The Paradise, he dons a mask and cape-because what else would one do? He then terrorizes Swan and the company. He confronts Swan who recognizes him and offers him a deal, a thick contract and then has him sign it in his own blood.
Locked in the recording studio until he finishes his cantata, Swan feeds him a diet of pills, all the while promising that Phoenix would be the star of the show. However when he does compete his magnum opus, Swan has him bricked into the studio and gives the lead role to a foppish heavy metal singer named “Beef”. When the Phantom escapes he confronts Beef in the shower and threatens him if he performs the role. Beef attempts to flee but is ushered back in by Swan’s goons. As he’s forced to perform, the Phantom is up in the rafters looking down and in a well-timed move electrocutes Beef, killing him.
Phoenix is ushered onstage, and her performance drives the crowd wild. After the performance, Swan seduces the singer in her dressing room and as she leaves the Phantom swoops in, and reveals his identity to Phoenix. Unfortunately for the rampant with shitty luck Phantom, she neither recognizes him nor believes him. At Swan’s mansion, he witnesses the mogul and the songstress in a passionate embrace. Distraught and broken hearted the Phantom stabs himself in the heart, but doesn’t die. Swan tells him he can die until Swan himself does. “I’m under contract too,” he says in one of the best lines of the movie.
Swan and Phoenix plan to marry during the final performance of the Phantom’s Faust cantata, which sets up the climax of the movie. While it’s by no means a classic ending, it’s certainly not worth spoiling for those who may not have seen it yet. I will say it’s a fulfilling ending, if somewhat expected, especially if you’re familiar with the works that Phantom of the Paradise draws inspiration from. I suppose in today’s terms, many would say it was ripping off Faust, Dorian Gray, etc, but DePalma is the master of homages and his inspirations are clearly done from love.
No musical would be worth its salt if the music isn’t any good, and I’m here to say that the soundtrack for Phantom is…okay at best. There’s nothing you’ll be humming after the movie’s over. In fact you may not remember the movie an hour after watching it, as it is a light, truffle of a movie. Rich and delicious while watching, but forgotten once it’s gone. That doesn’t make it a bad movie by any stretch, but it’s not meant to be profound. It’s a sometimes funny, sometimes satirical look at the music business. Paul Williams the diminutive songwriter and star of the movie also wrote the music for it as well. Williams was at the height-so to speak-of his popularity when Phantom was released in 1974, and though he would go on to appear in other movies (most notably in Smokey and the Bandit), Phantom was really his only starring role. It’s easy to see why. Williams had success as a songwriter, and it was easy to see why as his work includes “Rainbow Connection, Rainy days and Mondays, You and Me Against the World amongst others, but as an actor, he comes up short (pun intended). Perhaps it was DePalma’s twisted thought of making Swan unappealing, but casting Williams didn’t work for me. A role that requires some seductive powers, simply comes across creepy with him. Williams doesn’t ruin the movie, but it could have been so much better with someone else. I did enjoy his singing which was dubbed in for the Phantom’s voice.
William Finley as the Phantom was well cast, and if his performance comes off uneven at times, I think that has more to do with the script than anything else. So much happens to him prior to his becoming the Phantom that it would be hard for any actor to keep up. Hell the prison sequence alone could have gone on for another five or ten minutes and would still feel rushed.
Jessica Harper as Phoenix is perhaps the best of them all, and her singing voice is pure heaven. A special nod to Gerrit Graham who plays the very gay heavy metal singer Beef. Though his role is short, he provides some of the best moments of the movie. Graham was a staple of comedies in the 70’s and this is probably my favorite role of his. He also appeared in some earlier works of DePalma’s where the two established a close working relationship.
When you ask people about DePalma movies, Phantom does come up, but more often than not, it’s forgotten that he directed it. With films like Scarface, Carrie, Casualties of War, to his credit, it’s easy to forget that he had a solid background in comedies before he began the movies which solidified his reputation. In spite of that, his trademarks are still there, long tracking shots, split screens, odd camera angles-there’s no disputing this is a DePalma film, even if the material may say otherwise.
I don’t think Phantom stands up to the test of time very well. In many ways it’s a victim of its time, however, it’s also a valuable time capsule of an ear of moviemaking that we’ll most likely never see again.
In two weeks I’ll be talking about one of the classic horror movies of all time, Carrie!