Thursday, January 24, 2008

De Palmusical

Last night I watched a beloved cult classic, The Phantom of the Paradise, and man oh man am I sorry I took so long to see this film. Reviled in some circles and beloved in others (and I can see why it falls into both categories) Phantom is many things to many people. It's a horror film, it's a musical, it's a savage satire of pop music, it's yet another De Palma meditation on Hitchcockian techniques and tropes. It homages a number of classic horror tales most notably Phantom of the Opera (duh), Faust and The Picture of Dorian Grey. That's a pretty impressive pedigree. It's music evokes a variety of styles including Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and is oddly prescient in it's rock-opera style of the Rocky Horror Picture Show (which would be released upon audience the following year of 1975). It also evokes the motif of birds constantly (either with names like Swan and Phoenix abound or the Phantoms birdlike crest/mask) linking it to the under seen Robert Altman film Brewster McCloud. With all these different styles and flavors in the mix one would think the ensuing stew would taste fetid and unpalatable. I'm happy to report nothing could be further from the truth.

The film as directed and written (I was shocked about the writing part) by Brian De Palma is excellently paced quickly setting up the world where an uber-producer known only as Swan is the be-all and end-all of pop music. He is the star maker and trendsetter that everyone wants to be a part of, but for a good chunk of the film he goes unseen. Swan is played by Paul Williams who also acted as the film's composer and supplied vocals for himself and one of the other characters.
Williams may not be immediately recognizable but the man is as prolific as it gets and I can practically guarantee you've seen or heard him before even if you don't think you have. He's worked with a variety of bands ranging from the Scissor Sisters to Three Dog Night. He is also composer behind another cult film Bugsy Malone (also a musical that I will now be rushing to see). He also collaborated with Ken Ascher to create the songs for The Muppet Movie. Yes, the villain of this film wrote "The Rainbow Connection" (he also cameoed as the piano player in the club where Kermit meets Fozzie). Oh and he was the voice of the Penguin on the legendary Batman: The Animated Series. Paul Williams is awesome and now you know.

Swan is riding high when the film begins but he's opening a club known as The Paradise and wants a brand new musician with a brand new sound to open it. When he hears the music of pianist Winslow Leach (De Palma regular William Finley) he loves it. However, he's not wild about the needy and nebbishy Leach. He steals the first part of Leach's score to a cantata based on the story of Faust and the shuts-out Leach completely going so far as to get him arrested on trumped charges of drug dealing. In prison Leach is forced into a program where his teeth are replaced with metal (?) and hearing Swan's top label performers, the Juicy Fruits, perform HIS song, the now mad with rage Leach escapes and tries to sabotage the records production. Leach's plans go wrong and half his face is smooshed by a record press (even crazier than it sounds). Leach somehow survives and becomes the Phantom of the Paradise vowing revenge. And THAT brings us to the end of Act one.

I haven't even mentioned Phoenix (Jessica Harper) the Phantom's would-be love interest or Beef, the Rocky Horror meets David Bowie meets shrieking queen, that Swan creates as a new star.
De Palma is extraordinarily economical in his storytelling, his edits are quick but not neck-snapping. His dialogue is broad, clear and concise, but at the same time has an odd pop-y cadence that presages Rocky Horror. Characters and relationships are quickly established. We're rooting for Leach but at the same time the audience (an audience I should point out has NOW been raised by American Idol) can see why Swan would just want his music and not the man. The film also makes some sharp jabs at pop music that still feel relevant.

Bear in mind that this IS still a 1970's rock opera and if any of the words scare you off this might not be the film for you. It can get quite campy (if that wasn't already apparent) and you really ought to have an appetite for this sort of thing. Rocky Horror fans should have a lot of fun though.

To give you a wee sampling here are two trailers. The first is the actual theatrical trailer from the 70's.

This one is a re-edited trailer someone posted on youtube and it's way classier and I think does a way better job selling the film. Ah the glories of editing.

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