A Lesser-Known Masterpiece Brought to You By Brian De Palma
In the 50-year span of his film career, De Palma has brought legendary cinema to the eyes of viewers. Carrie, Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables, and we can’t forget the OG: Scarface. But even Palma has movies that have flown under the radar. 1974 was a big year for the movie industry. The Godfather Part II was released, as were Young Frankenstein, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Chinatown. Not every movie was a hit, but there were some which deserve more recognition which is where this film comes in. That was the year De Palma released his campy rock opera, Phantom of the Paradise.
Phantom of the Paradise brought together an interesting cast; William Finley plays Winslow Leach, a composer who dreams of having the entire world listen to his piano sonatas. Paul Williams plays Swan, the industry’s biggest record producer. Phoenix is an aspiring singer and is brought to life by Jessica Harper. After an accident, Leach becomes the Phantom, clad in black leather, a cape, and a silver bird mask. He wreaks havoc over Swan’s new musical theater, The Paradise.
De Palma’s Phantom is dark. It’s a satire about the music industry of the 70’s in the search of which musical sound is going to be the “next big thing.” Singers will do anything to get a part in the chorus and drugs are just a part of the game. Swan’s big idea for the performance of Faust is to bring in a group called The Undead. Paradise’s opening night is presented like a Halloween party. The Undead onstage wear painted faces overexaggerating shadows of their faces, appearing like a knockoff of KISS (who made their debut the year before Phantom was released). The band’s aggressive identity is further executed through their microphones fashioned into “daggers.” At certain points in their performance, they reach into the audience and cut off a fake limb to bring back and help in the creation of their leader, who is being “put together” with all of the body parts backstage. This visual imagery is matched with strobe lights and loud chanting by the audience, who love the concept. It is a sensory overload for the viewer, but that’s the point!
Phantom has the story of Faust intertwined so deeply that it’s almost a joke with life imitating art. Leach’s cantata he performs is modeled after the story, but little did he know that the score was going to end up being the story of his life. The movie hints at this concept several times, but unless you know a lot about the old German story, it’s easy to overlook on the first viewing. In the scene where Winslow is signing his contract, Swan pricks Winslow’s finger and a drop of blood falls onto the giant stack of papers. “Ink means nothing to me, Winslow” he says. If that isn’t textbook making a deal with the devil, then I don’t know what is.
Despite the darkness the film gives off, it is full of quirky charm. There are bird motifs everywhere: Swan and Phoenix’s names, Winslow’s bird mask, and even Death Records’ logo! There is a point in the film when Paul Williams voices Winslow’s singing voice and Swan jokes about it saying the tone was “almost perfect.” As the audience, it’s pretty funny considering Williams actually wrote all of the songs while also performing some of the musical numbers himself. Here’s something else for all you Twilight Zone fans out there—the movie’s introduction is narrated by none other than Rod Serling!
This fast-paced film stole the hearts of the few who had the opportunity to watch it on its limited run in Australia during the ’70s, a short time after its initial release. Years later, it seems like Phantom of the Paradise was nearly forgotten. It’s a classic in its own right, an underrated one at that. View at your own risk, but you won’t regret it!
If you need one more reason to watch it, Daft Punk also credited Phantom as their inspiration for their iconic robot costumes.