Originally a dutiful student of the French New Wave, Brian De Palma soon migrated towards populist films with a hint of artificiality: Carrie and The Fury mused over psychic powers while thrillers such as Body Double and Dressed to Kill obsessed over the appearance of female bodies before hacking them to pieces. Best known for his gangster epics Scarface, The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, De Palma instinctively understood the swaggering pretence of the American hoodlum and how sharp suits and theatrical yelling are a neat way of masking a predator’s scent. Indeed, no film better encapsulates Brian De Palma’s strengths and weaknesses than his much-underrated reboot of the Mission: Impossible franchise: Expensive, slick and entirely populated by people pretending to be someone else, M:I is far more interested in the elegant imitation of humanity than humanity itself. True to form, De Palma’s early rock opera Phantom of the Paradise is obsessed with masks, illusions and pastiches but offers nothing in the way of emotional reality.
Set in the coke-bloated dregs of the prog rock era, De Palma’s clumsy riff on Phantom of the Opera concerns itself with an aspiring singer/song-writer named Winslow Leach (William Finley). A creator of portentous and soulful tunes, Leach struggles to find an audience in a marketplace dominated by the cynically produced mass-market nostalgia of satanic music producer Swan (Paul Williams). Desperate for any kind of break, Leach agrees to show Swan his Faust-inspired ‘cantata’ only for Swan to steal his music, beat him up and have him thrown in prison. Driven mad by the sound of his music being performed on the radio by one of Swan’s cultural throwbacks, Leach escapes from prison only to wind up having his face mutilated by a record-pressing machine. Now completely insane, Leach dons a silver mask and vows revenge but Swan is too clever and Leach is too desperate for the revenge to play out smoothly.
It is difficult to describe the tone of Phantom of the Paradise without mentioning both The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Meat Loaf’s album Bat out of Hell. Much like these later works, Phantom takes elements of rock and musical theatre and combines them with elements of comedy and horror to produce precisely the kind of semi-ironic bombast that Punk was designed to take apart at the seams. Written and overwhelmingly performed by Paul Williams, the film’s soundtrack is incredibly reminiscent of Williams’ more famous cinematic project Bugsy Malone. Williams’ jowly vocals and over-produced sound aside, the charm of both musical lies in their clever imitation of older musical forms. Indeed, despite a narrative that hinges on the fate of Leach’s revolutionary ‘cantata’, the only memorable musical numbers in Phantom of the Paradise are those in which Williams sets out to imitate the doo-wop groups of the 50s, the.
Beach Boys and the glam rock excesses of the 1970s. De Palma’s film was evidently something of a flop on its initial release and the reason for this is obvious: Far too much time is devoted to music that is neither funny nor memorable and if you are going to build your plot around the idea of replacing musical nostalgia with something more authentic and raw then it might be an idea to include some raw and authentic music.
Clearly intended as a critique of the music industry, De Palma’s film is far too timid and genteel to be effective. A lot of time is spent establishing Swan’s satanic credentials but his cynicism, misogyny and creative cowardice feel more like a generous portrait than a scathing satire. The single best joke in the film is Gerrit Graham’s outrageously camp glam rock hard-man Beef who still comes nowhere close to the leather-clad, pelvis-thrusting, codpiece-wearing reality of bands from that era. Forty years after its creation, Beef’s limp-wristed pudginess and eye-rolling theatricality feels more like sneering homophobia than social satire.
Equally problematic is the film’s depiction of women as while De Palma’s script does contain a female character with a name and a few lines of dialogue (Jessica Harper’s Phoenix), the only reason this character exists is to give the Leach and Swan characters something to fight about. Unsurprisingly, De Palma’s decision to treat his sole female character as a plot device does come back to bite him when he tries to use Leach’s relationship with Phoenix as a source of drama and character motivation. The problem is that because De Palma forgot to include any scenes establishing a two-way relationship between Phoenix and Leach, Leach comes across as more of a pathetic stalker than a doomed lover.
Poorly written, poorly acted, and far too smug and cowardly to be either satirically pointed or musically interesting, Phantom of the Paradise is redeemed only by its visuals and even then De Palma’s pioneering use of video editing techniques to create split-screen effects serves only to distract and distance us from the emotional core of the story and remind us of quite how kitsch a film this really is.
Famously unsuccessful on release but now seen as one of De Palma’s more distinctive films, Phantom of the Paradise comes with an array of extras so rich and well-produced that you wish they’d been commissioned for a better film.