Phantom of the Paradise is the movie fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show didn’t know existed but may as well dig into as if it were a finger-licking feast. A rollicking, dark, and deranged rock opera, it is a musical featuring just enough self-referentiality and social commentary to excuse its wicked boisterousness, at times a Technicolor screwball delicacy and, during others, an unhinged music industry satire. It is a forgotten gem amongst Brian De Palma’s illustrious 1970s, and is a cult classic worthy of a bigger cult. You’ve got kids dressing up as Frank N. Furter for Rocky Horror special events — it’s time they become acquainted with Phoenix the torch singer, Beef the glam rocker, and the titular phantom himself. hey’ll be increasingly multifaceted that way.
Playing with the distinctions of The Phantom of the Opera in ways that suggest an update rather than an homage, Phantom of the Paradise stars Paul Williams as Swan, a radical music producer in the process of preparing for the grand opening of The Paradise, a concert hall meant to capitalize on the recent outbreak of glam rock. Ruthless but possessed with unparalleled good taste, he sees potential in Winslow Leach (William Finely), an aspiring songwriter whose audition to become one of The Paradise’s main acts captures the hearts of the men leading the project as if he’s Harry Nilsson’s twin.
But Swan, put off by Leach’s eccentricity, can see that such a man, despite incredible musical skill, will never become a star in the eyes of the public. So he throws him out of the building like an American Idol reject, sneakily stealing his music and claiming it as his own. A month or so later, Leach seeks followthrough from Swan, who told the man that a bit of passing time would lead to a record deal of some sort. But once again, he is thrown out like yesterday’s trash, with Swan dropping a few ounces of hard drugs into Leach’s bag in order to really get rid of him — shortly after, he is placed in the slammer, a life sentence, due to possession of narcotics.
Almost a year passes by, and, after finally having enough of his new, tortured life, Leach defiantly escapes, but gets badly injured in the process. He decides to hide out in the almost-completed Paradise, where Swan’s factory of musicians is rehearsing for his upcoming rock rendition of Faust. Leach, who now reigns as the Phantom of the Paradise, initially wreaks havoc upon the theatre, almost killing Swan’s most important assets in the process. But the latter promises The Phantom that he can rewrite much of the music for the play so long as he lets him produce it his way. The Phantom hesitantly complies, but, expectedly, immediately comes to regret it as what was once his crawls into the arms of another.
Pull a microscopic out from under your theater seat and you’ll find that Phantom of the Paradise is supposed to be a takedown of the music industry, albeit a supernaturally tinged one. Elements of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Rocky Horror, and De Palma’s later works (stylistically, I mean) are evident, but push past the ebullient sheen and you’ll come across a witty horror story crazier than Network but just as aware of the tone it’s going for.
The musical performances are carried out with bubbly sensationalism, and the actors glow under the pressure of having to be campy but not too much so. I particularly liked Paul Williams’s portrayal of the film’s enigmatic, but slightly satanic, music producer, and Gerrit Graham’s perky characterization of Beef, a glam rocker with a taste for pills and trotting around like a walking gay stereotype. De Palma, also the film’s writer, provides Phantom of the Paradise with a spirited foundation that enhances his incomparable stylistic cues. So while the film isn’t as admittedly good as Rocky Horror, it still makes for one of the most criminally overlooked films of the 1970s. Strange how something this bonkers only seems to escape off the tongues of cinephiles looking for a cavorting good time. B+