Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Written by Brian De Palma and Paul Williams
Directed by Brian De Palma
The rock opera is primarily a 1970s film genre that is still around in some form, but certainly not at the cultural zenith it had fifty years or so earlier. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is arguably the queen of them all, but many others achieved their own levels of cult status. Among them is Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, a picture with a deceptive title because it is not a rock opera adaptation of Phantom of the OPera. Yes, elements of that story are here, but it’s a mishmash of so many other things that it can be muddled. However, the film is saved by the music of Paul Williams and some amusing & clever performances. It’s not always perfect, but it’s constantly entertaining.
Winslow Leach (William Finley) is an aspiring singer-songwriter who auditions for acclaimed record producer Swan (Williams). The producer likes what he hears, but Leach’s distinct look and sound won’t do in pop music. Leach enters into a contract that he thinks will make him a star, only to find his songs have been stolen and repurposed for The Juicy Fruits, Swan’s principal singers. While attempting to sneak in for an audience with Swan, Leach is caught and framed for drug dealing, given a life sentence, and forgotten about. Managing to break out, Leach is presumed dead after an accident with a record press but has only become disfigured and lost his voice. He hides out in Swan’s newly opened Paradise, a modern concert hall, and puts together a costume using pieces of wardrobe backstage. The Phantom’s obsession is centered around Phoenix (Jessica Harper) and making sure she is the only one who sings his songs, no matter how many he needs to kill.
Phantom is very much a child of the Boomer era, based entirely around popular music and the various forms it was taking in the following and coming decade. The film opens with a 1950s Frank Valli-type song followed by an homage to the Beach Boys. Eventually, we get satirical takes on glam rock, KISS, folk-rock, and adult contemporary. De Palma wanted to poke fun at the music industry of the time, starting with the forms that music was taking. His second way of dissecting the business is through the diabolical plot of Swan, a figure who has a supernatural air about him from the start. Leach is completely obliterated under Swan’s boot, and they enter into an unsteady alliance that feeds the conflict for the rest of the picture.
While rock operas like Rocky and Jesus Christ Superstar were stories that used music to tell & frame their narrative, Phantom of the Paradise is different in that every element of its structure is based on satirizing the music industry. The Juicy Fruits are the ultimate manufactured boy band, changing their singing style and wardrobe while chasing trends from one week to the next. Swan holds auditions for large groups of women with the sole purpose of bedding them, with little to no interest in turning them into famous singers. Leach is a perfect example of how artists who aspire to make something great often have their work stolen from them and are forced to make pablum they see as the antithesis of their passion.
While Phantom is very different from De Palma’s overall body of work on the surface level, there are still a lot of techniques employed that he would keep perfecting. Most notably is his split-screen work, which he uses during a musical number as the Phantom places a bomb in a prop car. It’s a really well-done sequence that involves matching up the timing on both pieces of film to merge at the right moment. The world of this film is incredibly cartoonish compared to later De Palma pictures like Carrie or Dressed to Kill, and it is much rougher around the edges. The story mashes up Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Faust, which is where things get very muddled. While trying to touch on all these stories, it starts to fall apart in the middle and lean heavily into farce.
Everything about Phantom lets me know this movie is meant to be watched in a large theater full of people who love the picture. It’s certainly not perfect but extraordinarily campy & fun. Because its songs and story are very much about a specific period, it may not have aged as well as Rocky Horror, but I still think it is worth checking out if rock operas are your thing. Paul Williams has such a great ear, so the music alone makes the movie worth watching.