Scott: Brian De Palma had made a handful of movies before Phantom Of The Paradise, including the comedies Greetings and Hi, Mom! and the thriller Sisters, that suggest a natural progression to the film’s mix of satire and gore. But it’s De Palma’s one and only musical, and so it feels like an anomaly, despite the musicality that runs through his work. (His peerless choreographing of suspense sequences makes it so regrettable that he never gave it another shot, though a Hollywood musical would likely put him up against the kind of machinery that he satirizes so scabrously here.) The story of Winslow Leach’s odyssey through a debauched and compromising music industry is set up with The Juicy Fruits, the tacky beneficiaries of producer Swan’s star-making power, performing a hilariously awful story-song called “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye.” (Credit Paul Williams for his brilliant songbook, with lyrics like, “Well you did it Eddie and though it’s hard to applaud suicide / You gave all you could give so your sister could live / All America’s choked up inside.”) Contrast that with Winslow rolling his piano onto the stage and singing the centerpiece of his story-song epic Faust, with pure, unbridled passion. Phantom Of The Paradise is not only about Winslow’s journey, but about watching the work itself as it starts from this personal, transcendent place and then gets compromised and perverted in ways big and small, from the casting couch “auditions” at Swan’s estate to the tone-deaf Beef murdering the music onstage.
In terms of style, Noel’s Keynote yesterday gets into De Palma’s talent for staging multiple planes of action—the foreground/background of Philbin ranting to an unseen Swan in close-up as Winslow sets up his piano behind them is a favorite—but it bears his distinct stamp in other ways, too. There are layers of allusion in De Palma’s references to The Phantom Of The Opera, Faust, and The Picture Of Dorian Gray, combined with a sophisticated synthesis of events, like when Winslow takes revenge on Beef in the middle of a performance, or attempts to thwart Phoenix’s assassination during her elaborate stage wedding to Swan. The overall design of the film aims for the cult audience it would eventually attract, too, though it doesn’t go after it as aggressively as The Rocky Horror Picture Show would the following year. (I’d love to live in the alternate universe where Phantom was the midnight phenomenon that Rocky Horror became, but Guy Maddin has scared me off Winnipeg.) What do you guys make of De Palma’s artistry here?
Noel: Well, he doesn’t hold anything back, does he? Ordinarily I’d chalk that kind of gusto up to De Palma being young and brash, but he’s never really toned that side of himself down. Even his “serious” Vietnam film Casualties Of War dares to be a De Palma film, with bravura suspense and action sequences rendered with maximum luridness. De Palma is especially unmodulated in Phantom, though, which starts out over the top and then goes higher. And he fills the frame with fun little details, such as the bird imagery that pervades the film, all the way down to the embroidery on Philbin’s fringed jacket.
The secret to De Palma’s success (creatively, at least) is that he’s willing to push a moment until it becomes not just sharp but piercing. Think about the climax of this film, which is utter mayhem, with audience members screaming in rapturous delight, a stage full of entertainers dancing, and the hideous Winslow and the hideous Swan exposing each other. It’s all too much, really. But De Palma would repeat that grand-gesture-atop-grand-gesture finish with his next two films, Obsession and Carrie—and in the latter case, that approach would connect with audiences, giving him his first big hit.
Nathan: One of my favorite stylistic techniques in the film is also one of the subtler ones: It’s the way De Palma constantly teases Swan’s presence before revealing Paul Williams in all his 5-foot-2-inch glory. Before he’s ever properly introduced onscreen, the character already has an aura and a mystique. There’s a sense that he’s everywhere, all-seeing, all-knowing, a cross between Phil Spector and Satan. In the special features on the Phantom Of The Paradise Blu-ray, there’s a lot of talk about how in the initial version of the film, the logo of Swan’s company, Swan Song, can be seen constantly, but Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, whose company was also called Swan’s Song, made them remove those logos from the film; so Swan’s mystique is not quite as ubiquitous in the finished version as De Palma originally
Re-watching the film, I found myself thinking that De Palma probably identified with both sides of this particular Faustian divide—the control freak with all the neat gadgets peering inside’s everyone’s boudoir, and the passionately intense auteur who isn’t about to let anyone mess with his creative vision. Perhaps that’s why the film is so neatly balanced: We empathize with both sides, even as we see that they’re both more than a little insane and more than a little evil.
Keith: This might be a good time to tip the hat toward Jack Fisk, a still-active production designer who’s frequently collaborated with David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Here, he creates the film’s expressionistic world via outrageous sets, like Swan’s intimidating office and The Paradise itself, with its twisty corridors and hidden spaces. It’s a good thing, too, since De Palma was clearly working with a limited budget. The film unfolds in just a few places, but those places are memorable and, true to form, De Palma’s camera seems to find every inch of them, making what could have felt dinky and claustrophobic seem like a real, and dangerous, place.
Matt: Like Nathan, I found myself thinking a lot about the ways De Palma might have identified with both Swan and Winslow, and in that regard I like the way he mirrors the early teases of Swan, watching Winslow play Faust on his piano from a secluded opera box, with the early teases of Winslow’s Phantom, who watches Phoenix audition for Faust from a similar box seat. In both scenes, Swan and Winslow are unseen, except for their hands. The fact that Williams himself provides the singing voice for the Phantom adds another interesting layer to the slippery space between the two characters. And, in terms of small but awesome details, I love the way De Palma shoots the Phantom himself so that his one good eye is always perfectly lit, gleaming from beneath that big silver helmet. Nothing says crazy like one huge, unblinking eye.
Noel: Also worth noting for the “De Palma favors Swan as much as Winslow” argument: Winslow is a violent head-case even before he becomes the Phantom. When Philbin suggests that Swan might give Winslow’s songs to The Juicy Fruits, Winslow freaks the hell out. De Palma also makes Winslow look especially pathetic at the start of the film, when he’s pasting his tiny name on The Juicy Fruits’ giant outdoor banner, as though it were that easy just to horn in on the show. (Although I have to admit, there’s something sweetly naive about that gesture, too.) And my favorite example in Phantom of Winslow being kind of an asshole comes when Phoenix goes in to Swan’s harem, and when she immediately comes back out, visibly upset at having been molested by Swan’s goons, the first thing Winslow asks is, “Did you tell them who I am?”
Nathan: So why is Phantom Of The Paradise—a zeitgeist-friendly, hip and sexy, deeply cynical satire—a cult classic that we’re lovingly revisiting, while De Palma’s zeitgeist-chasing, wannabe-hip-and-sexy, deeply cynical satire The Bonfire Of The Vanities is a more or less universally despised boondoggle? The answers are many, but I suspect much of it has to do with Paul Williams, who as the lyricist and star of the film brought an authenticity and deep-seated knowledge of the material. In many ways, Williams is the film’s second auteur, and part of Phantom’s deranged joy comes from seeing the Sha Na Nas, Beach Boys, and Phil Spectors of the world be so deliciously satirized by someone who’s deeply rooted in the machinery of rock ’n’ roll. But De Palma was also savvy enough to see that the rock world of the 1970s was perfectly suited to the operatic bigness of the legends upon which the film is based. Williams and De Palma seize upon this sordid but wildly seductive world as a seedy realm where damn near every bargain is Faustian at its core.
Noel: As I wrote about in yesterday’s Keynote, one of the most telling shots in the entire movie is the last one, with Winslow and Phoenix effectively disappearing into a crowd of maniacal young people, who don’t really care that their idol is dead. Early in Phantom Of The Paradise, Swan shrugs off one of his lackeys’ concerned reports about a current pop-music superstar, saying, “She’ll be forgotten tomorrow.” The deep, true cynicism at the heart of Phantom is this idea that pop stardom isn’t lasting. There’s always some impresario around who can package the right people and get a big hit out of them. But at the end of the day, those manufactured stars fade, and only the impresario gets rich.
Keith: De Palma also didn’t have to look far for parallels as a director trying to express himself in a field where the machinery of the movie business had a habit of chewing up individual voices. De Palma made this movie early in his career, after his first, great, Hitchock-inspired thriller, Sisters, and before his first great commercial success, Carrie. Yet in some ways it feels like the work of an older De Palma, one who’s had some ups and downs in Hollywood and watched, frustrated, as others changed his vision and grew rich in the process, and the film-school generation to which he belonged had to adapt to survive or fade away.
Scott: That’s one of the things I find so remarkable about the film in retrospect. Not only did De Palma face all sorts of struggles with the Hollywood system later in his career—to the point where he’s lately gotten financing from the French and other independent sources—but I think we remember the 1970s as a time when musicians and filmmakers had more control over their personal visions than they do now. (It’s a fitting coincidence that Edgar Wright did a 40th-anniversary screening on Phantom Of The Paradise in Los Angeles recently, given his own no-doubt painful experience with Marvel on Ant-Man. You could cast the players in that saga quite easily with Phantom characters.) But then again, the Joni Mitchell song “Free Man In Paris,” about music mogul David Geffen, was released the very same year. Mitchell’s line about “stoking the star-making machinery behind the popular song” suits Swan to a T, does it not?
Matt: It does. But to get back to Nathan’s first question, Phantom Of The Paradise remains beloved because it remains relevant, and because it appears, at least to an outsider, that the music business has only gotten more Faustian in the decades since its release. A Paradise remake set in the world of American Idol and The Voice-style reality shows seems totally unnecessary; the original film says everything that needs to be said about a system designed to find new talent, leech it of whatever creativity it possesses, strip-mine it for salable elements, and throw it away. Even Swan’s high-tech studio, which transmogrifies the Phantom’s mangled voice into a beautiful sound, anticipates the rise of Auto-Tune. Throw in a few references to Spotify and get rid of the bell-bottoms, and the movie could basically come out today.
Noel: You’d also have to get rid of the contents of the Death Records directory, which currently has Winslow Leach’s name alongside Peter Fonda, David Geffen, Bette Midler, Dick Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Alice Cooper, and—of all people—George McGovern. But you could probably replace them with the names of some of the high-profile Phantom Of The Paradise fans—like the guys in Daft Punk, who’ve reportedly seen the film more than a dozen times, and borrowed aspects of their stage garb from it.
Keith: It wouldn’t be a Brian De Palma film without quotes from other movies, and this one has a funny one that sends up Psycho’s shower scene, with a twist. That’s a borrowing so obvious that it’s designed to call attention to itself, but I also enjoy the way he brings German Expressionism into the 1970s with those highly stylized sets that look like a rock ’n’ roll version of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, which Phantom resembles in other ways, too. It’s also loaded with music references, particularly with the band that keeps changing with the changing times, a Sha Na Na clone for one song, a Beach Boys rip-off for another, then some kind of hybrid of Alice Cooper and Kiss. It’s worth noting that the first two incarnations reference the nostalgia craze of the early 1970s—Sha Na Na fashioned itself as a throwback from the start, but The Beach Boys had started to enjoy a second life as an oldies act thanks to the bestselling Endless Summer collection—and with no particular fondness. For some, it must have felt like music had started to cannibalize itself. Even Kiss and Cooper, though hardly nostalgia acts, had an air of self-conscious theatricality that drove a lot of music fans nuts. What does it all add up to? And is it odd for a director who borrows so liberally from the past to make a film so critical of nostalgia?
Noel: And don’t forget De Palma’s nod to The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, by having Rod Serling do the opening narration. Anyway, I think it’s how De Palma borrows that matters. In the Psycho steal, for example, he’s making a knowing joke. I’d also say that the similarities between Swan’s estate and Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu are meant to be a blatant, a way of short-handing that Swan, like Kane, is a puppet-master with the heart of a deprived child. In other words: I don’t think De Palma is stealing from old Hollywood movies (including Universal’s gothic horror) because he thinks old movies are better. It’s just one of the languages in which he’s conversant.
It’s interesting that you bring up Kiss, though. Both Kiss and The Rocky Horror Show predate Phantom Of The Paradise, but if I have my chronology correct (and I was 3 years old when this movie came out, so I may be misremembering), neither Kiss nor Rocky Horror would’ve been popular enough for De Palma to be nodding to them. Rocky Horror was still just a stage show at the time, and Kiss didn’t have any hits. And yet some of the makeup and staging in Phantom is so close to both of those that the movie is either incredibly hip or there really was something in the air in the mid-1970s, in the thick of the glam-rock era. (By the way, I highly recommend the website The Swan Archives for its trove of behind-the-scenes Phantom Of The Paradise material, which includes a careful consideration of whether Kiss could’ve influenced this movie or vice-versa.)
Scott: Keith and Noel, I’ll defer to your superior knowledge on the music of the period, and I have nothing to add about the film references, either. But Phantom Of The Paradise, with its overt nods to Faust and The Picture Of Dorian Gray on top of all the references sprinkled throughout, speaks to De Palma’s talent as a pastiche artist, capable of taking something old and making it seem new again. And you see it in the generation of filmmakers that followed De Palma, too, like Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, who take high and low art, trash and treasure, and examine it from a different and more knowing angle.
Nathan: I recently finished the book Going Too Far, Tony Hendra’s meandering account of Baby Boomer humor, and one of the assertions he makes is that the 1950s nostalgia wave was in many ways ironic and kitschy rather than sincere. Sha Na Na was mocking the ridiculousness and absurdity of greaser doo-wop posturing even as it tapped into a rich vein of nostalgia. According to the Phantom audio commentary, the filmmakers thought seriously about trying to cast Sha Na Na as The Juicy Fruits, only to reckon the group was too big, too expensive, and too difficult to work with to be a good fit for the film. On another level, it would have been inspired casting, since the film’s take on nostalgia isn’t just ironic and mocking, it’s downright vicious—though I think that has a lot to do with De Palma’s cynicism about the world and human nature in particular. De Palma may revere cinema’s past, but he’s also an astute enough observer of humanity to know that, like every other element of show-business, it was filled with raging assholes eager to fatten their pockets while fucking over the other guy. Some themes are timeless. That, for better or worse, is one of them.
Music and musicals
Noel: Making Phantom Of The Paradise into a musical gave Brian De Palma the license to do what he was likely to do anyway: Make everything in the movie bolder, more dynamic, and more emotional. Audiences are inclined to accept an operatic style in a musical, more so than they may be in a thriller (which may be why some people never acquire the taste for De Palma’s thrillers, which are lurid to the point of being almost comical). In Phantom, though, De Palma swirls the camera around Winslow while he’s at the piano, and tracks Phoenix doing her funky bird-dance during an audition, and it all makes sense.
But what do we make of Williams’ score? It’s the one part of the movie that doesn’t always fit for me. That’s not a knock on Williams, whose pop hits and personality were part of the backdrop of my childhood. (I still spin my old vinyl copy of Classics a few times a year.) And that’s not a knock on this movie’s music in and of itself, which is eclectic and often beautiful. It’s just that the songs here are largely un-hooky, which makes them unlikely candidates as both Top 40 fare (which Swan turns them into) and as the stuff of a Hollywood musical. Does this matter? Or is non-poppiness of these pop songs maybe part of the point, to show that full extent of Swan’s star-making powers?
Scott: There’s some incongruity there for sure, though I’m not sure it’s ultimately to the movie’s detriment. Williams had proven before and after that he’s an expert of pop songcraft, but Faust is a concept album—“a cantata,” by Winslow’s description—and thus can’t be broken away from the whole like a single can. Even the Juicy Fruits song that opens the movie is a hilariously inane song-story, rather than music you could conceivably imagine climbing the charts. But I love the soaring, theatrical quality of the music, and I don’t think it’s nonsensical in relation to the story, which involves a producer with so much power to make or break a performer that he can make anything a hit and anybody a star. I do wonder, though, if Phantom Of The Paradise might have had a better shot at Rocky Horror’s profile if Williams had written singles more in line with “Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite.”
Keith: You nailed my misgivings about this movie: I love the music but I’d love it more with a song or two to hum on the way home. Also, every time I watch this I wish the group playing The Juicy Fruits/Beach Bums/Undead was just a little more dynamic. I guess, ultimately, I wish the songs had a bit more of the hand of Swan in them. Does that make me a bad guy in this scenario?
Nathan: I don’t know what it says about me that I’m familiar with Williams primarily through his work in Ishtar, where this brilliant songwriter had the strange task of writing the worst, most amateurish songs possible (to simulate the work of two talentless hacks), and did such a brilliant job of it that to this day I am pissed they never released a soundtrack for the film. Williams did a similar job here in that he was writing songs to fit the script, the characters, and the milieu as opposed to writing the best possible songs. Williams wrote songs that were supposed to be disposable, tacky, cheap, and vulgar, that would hit the pop charts (with a whole lot of help from payola) and be ignored. I think he succeeded to the point where I once again found myself bummed the soundtrack for Phantom Of The Paradise isn’t available on MP3, though that’s perhaps a symptom of the music not connecting the way the music for Rocky Horror did. It’s worth noting, however, that The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a flop upon its release, so it wasn’t until it attained cult status that “Time Warp” became a popular favorite and irresistible sing-along ditty. And casting the same actors/musicians as Swan’s three groups underlines the disposability of pop performers; it doesn’t matter who’s singing the songs, it only matters that the pipeline keep running smoothly.
Matt: I’ve also never been entirely sure why Swan wants Winslow’s music so badly if he’s just going to drastically revise it in order to turn it into pop drivel. His schemes certainly play perfectly into the film’s ideas about artists being consumed and destroyed by the industry around their art, but they don’t make a whole lot of sense. (If Swan’s going to plagiarize someone, why not plagiarize someone whose work he can steal without having to massively rewrite it?) That said, I would kill to do “Faust” at karaoke. Everyone would hate it, and it would almost certainly clear the bar out, but it’s been a dream of mine for many years.
Matt: With more and more movies being strip-mined for Broadway musicals—recent examples include Aladdin, Bullets Over Broadway, and Rocky—it boggles my mind that there hasn’t been a stage version of Phantom Of The Paradise. Granted, it’s more of a cult film than any of those other titles, but it’s also actually a musical. Plus, its inspiration, Phantom Of The Opera, is the longest-running show in Broadway history, which would seemingly open up a whole new area of satire for the stage version to mine. In May of 1985, three years before Phantom opened on Broadway, The New York Times reported that De Palma and producer Edward Pressman were actually working on a Broadway version of their film, with songs by Jim Steinman, the longtime collaborator of Beef—oops, excuse me, of Meat Loaf. The project never came together, although a few years later a different De Palma film became the source material for one of the most infamous flops in theater history, which could be one reason why people have been gun-shy about bringing Phantom of The Paradise to the Great White Way. But I think it would be a perfect fit. Am I crazy?
Nathan: Matt, you are only crazy in the way Winslow Leach is crazy. And I would kill to see a Broadway musical based on Phantom Of The Paradise. Hell, they had that Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark show where they would seriously injure a lead actor in damn near every performance in what I can only imagine was an intentional homage to Phantom Of The Paradise.
Now might be a good time to postulate how this singularly brilliant oddity might have been substantially different. According to the commentary track, the filmmakers thought about trying to cast a giant like Mick Jagger or David Bowie in the Swan role. Sha Na Na was considered for The Juicy Fruits, and Linda Ronstadt apparently just lost out on the female lead. Oh, and at one point Peter Boyle was considered for the role of Beef, in a version that would have had Gerrit Graham (whom I love for his work here, as well as in Used Cars and The Critic) take over as Swan. Williams was strongly considered for the role of Winslow, but he argued, persuasively, that he was far too short to be a credible threat in anything other than a Dollman sort of way. Do you think these alternate versions of the film might have been an improvement? Casting Jagger or Bowie as Swan would have made big headlines, but I love the movie the way it is, and the fact that Williams and William Finley didn’t go on to create other indelible characters somehow makes the movie even more special.
Keith: I’d see a Phantom Of The Paradise musical, though I’d be more interested in seeing another De Palma movie-musical at some point. His style and sensibility fits the genre well, as noted above, even if he never got back to it outside of some music-video work. (If we hadn’t done this as a Movie Of The Week, it would be a perfect fit for one of Scott’s Departures columns.) But maybe that’s okay. I love Phantom as a fascinating one-off for virtually everyone involved, including the actors: Neither Williams nor Finley would have such big roles again. (Jessica Harper went on to a long career, but never got such amazing dance moves as she gets here, either.) It’s a true curiosity, and there aren’t enough of those.
Noel: It is a curiosity, Keith. I was thinking this time through the movie that if I happened across Phantom Of The Paradise on TV and had never heard of it before, I’d keep watching it just to try and figure out what the hell it was supposed to be. I think De Palma’s films often have that effect. He rubs some unsuspecting viewers the wrong way if they buy a ticket for a night out at the movies, expecting a more conventional thriller. But there have been multiple times in my life when I’ve been watching a De Palma and some not-so-adventurous moviegoer (like my mom, or one of my college roommates) has wandered through the room and become transfixed. If you either know what’s coming or if you have no idea what you’re watching, a De Palma film can be a special experience.
Oh, and by the way, hearkening back to our Jaws discussion: Isn’t it odd that a movie this dark and violent was rated PG when it came out in 1974? I’ve said it before and I'll say it again: The 1970s were weird.
Scott: A couple of thoughts: 1) I, too, find it surprising that Phantom Of The Paradise hasn’t found its way to the stage, given its cult reputation and how easily it would make the transition. I’d also be excited to see those songs performed live, though it would also be a test to see how much the absence of De Palma’s filmmaking would damage the material; I think it would be significant and would require some equally creative stage direction to compensate. 2) William Finley playing “Faust” on that piano is a scene I just keep watching over and over again. His utter lack of self-awareness as he gets swept up into the music—a kind of delirium that De Palma’s circling camera captures beautifully—is passionate and moving in a way that makes everything that follows more potent. R.I.P.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of Phantom Of The Paradise kicked off yesterday with Noel Murray’s Keynote on how De Palms uses a divided screen to establish a world where good and evil aren’t what they seem, and continues tomorrow with Alan Jones’ look at how a movie that bombed at the U.S. box office became a Rocky Horror-style phenomenon in Winnipeg.