I really like The Phantom of the Paradise.
I’m not sure how I first came across Brian De Palma’s musical satire of the record industry, but I have a feeling it was around the time Daft Punk’s new album Random Access Memories was released. The band claimed that the centrepiece of the album was the song Touch by Paul Williams. Doing a bit of research into this campy voice, I found that Williams had starred in and wrote the music for a film called Phantom of the Paradise. Watching a clip from the movie, I was astounded at the costume design of the titular spectre. With a silver mask, electronic voice, and all-leather outfit, it was easy to connect the dots when I read that this was one of Daft Punk’s all time favourite films.
It makes sense that Daft Punk would have watched this film in their youth, since Phantom bombed on release worldwide save for two places: Winnipeg (that’s in Canada by the way) and Paris. Why it failed when The Rocky Horror Picture Show exploded in popularity one year later is a mystery to me, as the films share similar themes and subject matter. Regardless, this is one of the few De Palma films I actually enjoy, and I’m glad to see it being recognized more in recent years.
It’s hard to put into words what makes this film special – as difficult as it would be to track the countless cinematic influences that De Palma pilfered in making it (though rest assured, it’s loaded with Hitchcock references). The film itself is a mix of The Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, to name just a few examples. At the very least, the soundtrack is excellent, jumping from one musical genre to another with ease. The film begins with a catchy 1950’s-inspired musical number before we are introduced to head-henchman Philbin, played by George Memmoli.
This is an interesting scene. Philbin appears to address the audience for over a minute before music tycoon Swan (Paul Williams!) finally responds. I’m not sure why De Palma decided it was a good idea for the audience (or at least the camera) to assume the perspective of the film’s villain in the first scene, but somehow it works. Swan and Philbin discuss the need for truly remarkable music to open up Swan’s rock palace, The Paradise. In the background of this shot we see our protagonist Winslow Leach, played by the other-worldly William Finley, setting up to perform. As he begins to play, Swan pays attention: he has finally found the perfect music.
Winslow continues to sing, and the scene plays out in a circular tracking movement around him. This is an effective way, at least in this instance, to keep the scene dynamic while focusing on a static subject. I’m not sure if De Palma is referencing Hitchcock or something out of the silent era of filmmaking here. Curiously, I was most reminded of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will when watching this shot.
Thus begins Swan’s goal of stealing Winslow’s music for The Paradise. After being framed, put into prison, having his teeth replaced with metal (for a reason the film barely bothers to explain) and his face and vocal chords ruined, Winslow seeks revenge for having his music stolen from him.
Assuming the identity of a…Phantom? Winslow begins his vengeance by planting a bomb in the prop car of Swan’s band during a performance. I’m not sure I can call this a reference to Touch of Evil so much as an enthusiastic recreation of its opening scene. The key difference here is De Palma’s use of split screen, which I can only hope was inspired by the excellent The Boston Stangler. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work here, as the sound design problems of having characters speaking and a full musical performance at the same time leads to the audience being unable to understand either.
Swan confronts The Phantom, who is unable to kill Swan because…well, we’re not quite sure. Either way, Swan convinces The Phantom to write him one last rock cantata. He agrees, under the condition that the only person who can sing his music is Phoenix, played by Jessica Harper.
Their deal is altered when Swan decides to go with the androgynous Beef (Gerrit Graham) as his lead singer instead of Phoenix. This culminates with The Phantom issuing a warning with a brilliant reference to Psycho. Beef enters the shower. The Phantom approaches with a knife. This is a De Palma film. We just know that this is going to be another Hitchcock reference. The strings squeal, the knife tears through the curtain, and just as Beef catches a glimpse of his attacker, he is silenced by a toilet plunger. For what it’s worth, this is an excellent subversion of audience expectation.
The music in Phantom, as I’ve mentioned before, is excellent. Throughout the film, Swan hears music written by Winslow, steals it, and uses it in his own work. In a film about the record industry stealing from musicians made by a filmmaker who steals ideas from other films, this is just brilliant. Listen here to a segment of Swan’s Life at Last which steals from Winslow’s Old Souls being played side by side (30 seconds):
And again, with Winslow’s Faust and Swan’s Upholstery (52 seconds):
Speaking of stealing, there is a long-standing rumour that the band KISS was inspired by the Somebody Super Like You sequence in this film. Both Phantom and KISS entered existence at roughly the same time so there’s never been a concrete answer, though I find it unlikely that the band would have even been exposed to the film. On De Palma’s end, the makeup and set design used in this scene is an obvious reference to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
As for the rumour that De Palma’s friend George Lucas was inspired by The Phantom’s outfit and electronic voice box when creating Darth Vader, that’s up for audiences to decide.
Phantom of the Paradise is an incredibly dense work for its 91 minute runtime, and I could honestly talk about it for hours. Rather than subject you to my rambling love for this film, I would recommend checking out The Swan Archives if you’d like to learn more about it. It’s a well-researched fan website for all things related to the film, so much so that they were involved in the recent Blu-ray version of Phantom (as was I, to the extent of correcting a typo on the front cover before it was publicly released).
Thank you for reading, and Happy Halloween!