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Some ’70s Fun: Phantom Of The Paradise (1974) July 14, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1970s, Movies.
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Remember when Brian de Palma made films worth seeing ?  Yeah, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? And I’m someone who will defend a lot of his material that so often gets dismissed as derivative or misogynist crap.

For instance, I liked Body Double, even if its amalgamated ripping off of Rear Window and Vertigo makes absolutely so sense when you consider that Craig Wasson’s claustrophobia has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the murder scheme, unlike Jimmy Stewart’s case of vertigo which is central to the plot. I also liked Wise Guys, a comedy about really really stupid mafia starring (wait for it) Joe Piscopo along with Danny DeVito that tanked at the box office, mostly because you really have to be from Jersey or Rhode Island (like me) to truly understand the comic potential of really really stupid mafia.  I’ll defend the choppy and uneven Hi, Mom! because the “Be Black, Baby” segment is absolutely brilliant.

And now that I think of it, that segment segues into Phantom of the Paradise quite nicely since both satirize the moral emptiness of the supposedly hip/cutting edge audience.  Modeled partly after the 1943 film version of Phantom of The Opera (since our Phantom gets his art ripped off & then gets disfigured when he fights back), Paradise also weaves in the story of Faust, both in its own narrative and also in the rock opera at the center of the story which provides all the songs. And I have no guilt about defending this one – it’s one of De Palma’s better movies.

For a rock and roll Faustian story, our devil incarnate will predictably be an industry mogul – we’ve seen his likes before in Z Man from Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, or The Monkees fighting with Don Kirshner, or Phil Spector as homicidal maniac or The Groovy Guru from Get Smart….

… okay, you get the idea. The evil mogul Swann, played by Paul Williams, steals our Phantom’s (De Palma regular William Finley) Faustian rock cantata, sends him to prison, has his teeth knocked out, and ultimately drives him insane enough for him to get half his face mangled by a record press. He dons his bird mask and terrorizes Swann’s “Paradise” rock club until selling out to Swann to ultimately see his cantata performed by his chosen voice, Phoenix (Jessica Harper).

Along the way, retro-50s rock and ’70s glam are both utilized and satirized in the story – when Swann schemes to have rock star Beef (Gerrit Graham) sing the material instead of Phoenix, the Phantom flips out and starts a’killin’ in the middle of his Frankenstein-esque number which seems modeled after a combo of Alice Cooper, Kiss & Elton John.  Williams wrote the Oscar nominated score, with songs that mirror elements of the movie’s storyline within the Faust opera-within-the-opera.

And since de Palma is de Palma, we get cinematic references along the way, from a very funny Psycho parody to Manchurian Candidate to Citizen Kane. We also get de Palma’s favorite device of split screen, used both well and not-so-well.

Williams might have had an AM-radio love song image (think of his turn on an episode of The Odd Couple, playing himself as teen idol to Felix’ daughter, for example), but he does a good job here as an evil sleaze. It reminded me that the guy can be a decent character actor when he wants to be, like in one of my favorite old culty films The Loved One where he turns up (in his debut role) as a boy rocket genius. 

Finley was a college buddy of de Palma’s and always provided a nice creepy presence in other films de Palma cast him in, such as playing the doctor in Sisters (which is pretty good) or the creepy old chauffeur in The Black Dahlia (which was GOD AWFUL – among other problems such as lame-ass plot, historic inaccuracy and wildly changing tone, we’re supposed to believe that Hilary Swank would be a dead-ringer for Mia Kirshner and that the two could not be told apart – this would be like casting George Clooney as someone mistaken for Steve Buscemi. Lame, lame, lame.) – anyway, Finley is great here, both has hapless pre-Phantom dweeb and also as creepy bird-masked big eyeball boy.

While this movie often gets paired up with The Rocky Horror Picture Show for it’s ’70s rock opera feel, I think it goes better with the aforementioned Beyond The Valley of The Dolls for its take on the music industry-as-soul-stealer, as well as its portrayal of corrupt celebrity power. Granted, Dolls is “a parody of a parody of a parody” as writer Roger Ebert put it and Paradise combines both comedy, horror and elements of tragic opera, and does so pretty well. And if you really wanted a thematic pairing, I guess you could also watch this:

Or not. (I double-dog dare ya to sit through all 14 parts on Youtube)

Any of you out there who enjoy this particular subgenre of rock movie should definitely check out Phantom of The Paradise.

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