The Sound of Musicals: Phantom of the Paradise
When it was decided we were doing a group posting on our favorite musicals, I couldn’t get myself written down for Phantom of the Paradise fast enough. It is one of my favorite films so I was happy for the chance to write about it. If you asked the average person to name their favorite movie musical, Phantom of the Paradise would probably not even come up. If you find someone who does answer Phantom, though, marry that person immediately! You will not do better. Let’s face it, describing Brian De Palma’s film as “over the top” would be an understatement. From the story and dialogue to the sets and costumes, everything is cranked up to 11. I think we can all agree: Phantom of the Paradise is bat-shit crazy and the insanity is part of its charm.
Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a composer who gets a “lucky” break when wunderkind, megastar record producer Swan (Paul Williams) happens to hear him playing one night. Swan steals his music and plans on using it to open The Paradise, Swan’s new nightclub. While Swan is auditioning singers to perform Leach’s music, we are introduced to Phoenix (Jessica Harper). Most of the women there are willing to sleep with Swan’s head lackey, Philbin, for a chance at stardom, Phoenix is adamantly not. During these auditions, the disenfranchised Leach steals his way in and meets Phoenix. He instantly falls in love with her voice and declares she should be the only one to sing his music. In a chain of misfortune, Leach becomes disfigured and decides to don a mask while also deciding to take up residence in The Paradise. If this is sounding like a beloved, well-known musical (or two), well, just go with it. There are some pretty spectacular things that happen in the middle section of the film, that I really wish the movie ended at this point because the last third can be a mess.
There is little doubt this movie was directed by Brian De Palma; it has his hallmarks throughout, most notably during The Beach Bums’ (one of his ersatz groups) performance of “Upholstery”. De Palma splits the screen in half where each side is one complete take. One side is the performance of the band while the other is the action going on backstage. It’s a remarkable take and it is worth watching the movie for this scene alone.
The cast is fine. Paul Williams (who also wrote all the songs for the soundtrack) is great as Swan. That blonde shag he sports cannot be beat. Jessica Harper (who hit the cult movie trifecta with this, Suspiria, and Shock Treatment) has an okay singing voice, it’s in the same vein as Karen Carpenter’s, but not as sweet. What is sweet is the way she tries to dance, poor love. By far, my favorite character in Phantom is Beef (a kind of glammed-up precursor to Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter), played in all its glory by Gerrit Graham. He is only in a handful of scenes but, oh boy, they are fan-fucking-tastic.
Honestly, Phantom of the Paradise is rather difficult to describe. It’s a musical, it’s a horror film, and it must be seen to be believed. Do yourself a solid this holiday season and check it out. You’ll be happy you did.