Phantom of The Paradise
A Cult Classic That Pairs Well With cannabis.
The 70’s were a crazy time, and in 1974, Brian De Palma wasn’t famous yet — but Paul Williams sure was, and the two of them teamed up to create The Phantom of Paradise. I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence about what a king Paul Williams is, but he wrote things like … A Star is Born and … ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’, and probably any Carpenters song you really liked. He also worked with my personal favorites, the Muppets, and co-wrote “The Rainbow Connection.” Side note — he’s recently co-written and performed songs with Daft Punk…because Phantom of The Paradise inspired Daft Punk.
Paul Williams’ career was ON FIRE in the year this movie was made, but Brian DePalma was just getting started after a few years of making documentary films and was trying to make his break in Hollywood (Carrie was still a couple of years away).
Ends up, that is a great formula for movie magic.
The Phantom of the Paradise takes the story of Phantom of the Opera and shoves it into the story of Faust and spices it with a hint of Little Mermaid, and then paints it with a bit of … Dorian Gray. It’s a rock opera horror comedy that predates Rocky Horror Picture Show. Brian DePalma both wrote and directed, and Paul Williams added the music and swagger. The movie went on to be nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the music.
It is transcendent.
The pace at which DePalma is able to lay out the complex plot is staggering, but the film itself never feels overly rushed or dense. It’s possible this is because it’s so archetypal (a testament to the writing and the amazing production overall). There’s a part of me that would love to see a Phantom of The Paradise Tarot Deck. The sets, scenery and costumes are so on-point and perfect that I’d love to see more people dress as these characters.
Swan, our devil, is a record producer and pretty talented sound engineer / sound mixer and fashion icon whose glasses tint always matches his clothes. I guess being the devil has privileges. It’s important that Swan is scummy as fuck to boot, because packed inside of this fun movie is a scathing comment on the brutality of the music industry in particular and the entertainment industry in general (trust me it’s still timely). How could there be Faust without a devil? Williams is over the top and has his dial tuned perfectly to licentiousness.
The movie opens with a voiceover read by none other than Rod Serling. It explains that Swan, a legend with an unknown past (*cough* devil *cough*), is looking for the new sound, something to replace the nostalgia wave his band, the Juicy Fruits (name is oh-so bubblegum appropriate!), ushered in. We’re introduced to our protagonist, Winslow Leach (played by William Finley), as he pastes his name onto a poster of the Juicy Fruits, before taking the stage after them to perform.
Swan listens to Winslow’s performance and knows the music would be perfect to open his new concert hall, The Paradise, so he sends his henchman to steal it. They use the ruse that Swan will produce it. Winslow gives in even though it’s obvious that Swan’s goon Philbin doesn’t understand the scope of his music — that it’s more than a single song, it’s an entire work. Winslow IS, however, super clear that he doesn’t want the Juicy Fruits to sing it (it’s obvious he’s not a fan. Really very obvious.)
We all know Swan doesn’t give a fuck, right? So Winslow tries to find out what’s going on after being ghosted for a month — and it so happens that Swan is running ‘auditions’ for Winslow’s Faust. The Weinstein style auditions. While there, Winslow discovers Phoenix (played by pre-Suspiria Jessica Harper) singing his work and loves hearing her sing it — but is pissed as hell that his name has been removed from it.
What’s fascinating about this interpretation of the Phantom story is the time that we spend with the character before his scarring. Even Phoenix (Christine / Maguerite for you Phantom / Faust fans) interacts with him before he is scarred. This allows for her to have a subsequent recognition of him in a later moment that I’m not even going to talk about.
The other interesting thing: we also see the moment he’s scarred — when Winslow tries to break into Swan’s mansion a second time he’s beaten up, framed for drugs, and sent to Sing-Sing. It’s there that his teeth are extracted and replaced with metal ones, courtesy of a Swan Foundation program aimed at reducing infections in the prison population (so many timely comments).
It is also in Sing-Sing that he hears his Faust being sung by the Juicy Fruits at which point he snaps, loses his shit, and goes on a prison-escaping rampage that ends with his face in a record press at Swan’s headquarters. The accident also crushes his vocal cords.
Winslow then sneaks into The Paradise’s costume department and crafts his new look.
I don’t want to go too much farther, because I think the delight of the movie is in seeing it. But I do feel like I’m really doing the movie a disservice if I don’t show you who the movie’s ‘Carlotta’ is (who Swan selects to sing Winslow’s Faust just to piss him off). It’s a character named Beef played by Gerrit Graham.
I have to point out Beef . . . because talk about scene-stealing.
I also want to say: the movie’s chandelier scene is such an amazing interpretation, and the Psycho shower scene is unforgettable.
Phantom of the Paradise is ridiculous, beautiful, and earnest in all of the best ways. It’s fun, thoughtful, has some really banging music, and is laugh out loud funny. It is an amazing 90 minute ride and if you missed it like I did, it’s a fun 90 minutes. I understand why it’s often in a double feature with Rocky Horror Picture Show, I just wish I had managed to see one myself so I would have discovered this gem earlier!