It’s that time of the year again. The month of October is upon us. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema put together another curated, month-long series with Screen Screams. This year, we will be checking our clocks as we wait in anticipation for the forbidden delight we call “the midnight movie”. And with midnight movies comes a variety of projects that are perhaps too niche for the masses. Tonight, we will lose ourselves to dance with Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise.
I don’t know how else to describe Phantom of the Paradise than to say it’s the living, breathing embodiment of rock and roll. It’s all in the attitude, a Serge-Gainsbourg-setting-flame-to-a-500-franc-bill-on-live-French-television kind of attitude. And a gesture clearly evidenced in Brian De Palma’s handling of the original source material, which includes the literary likes of Faust, Phantom of the Opera, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. But you may find something beautiful from this onslaught of inspirations. And you don’t need the help of the illicit to hear it. The color of sound.
Phantom of the Paradise begins with the makings of some twisted biopic. Prospective singer-songwriter Winslow Leach wants to make it big in the industry, and he has just the magnum opus to do it. A rock opera cantata about Faust himself. All he has to do is fork over his efforts to the record labels for a shot at stardom. Little does he know, however, that one angel fell from grace long before rock stars could. Long before drugs could claim the lives of those with so much life to give. The very image of rock and roll. The devil. And it just so happens that he has given his pride and joy away to this devil incarnate, a record executive by the name of Swan.
Oh, the allure of showbiz, so sweet and lovely in its promises of success. But it will dispose of you as fast as Pete Townshend can smash a guitar. Let’s just say that fate does not take too kindly to our naïve Winslow. For one, he loses the girl meant to sing his cantata. Second, he goes to prison for trespassing on Swan’s grounds. And to make matters worse, he survives a freak accident that leaves him branded with record wax. And so it goes. Despite this turn of unfortunate events, he vows revenge on Swan, demanding the artist’s right of personal expression with as much fervor as Taylor Swift and her master recordings.
I’ve probably already given you the wrong impression of what I think is Brian De Palma’s best. The plot itself may seem like a downer if it was not for the film succumbing to sheer excess. What a concept for our twentieth-first-century streaming age, where everything has a standard of quality, but not a twinge of soul. Hollywood, so wanting to please the greatest numbers, forgoes the opportunity to challenge its audiences. Meanwhile, De Palma spends every minute challenging his audience with a spectacular mess. And in doing so, Phantom of the Paradise becomes something truly great.
At one moment in the film, Winslow plants a bomb beside a performance of bikini-glad girls and beach boys to get back at Swan. And I tell you what, I laughed. Not because I condone terrorism, but that these surfer teens go up in flames and Swan does not even react. Once again, De Palma employs his split-screen technique in this scene and it’s chaotic, to say the least. Voices off-stage clash with the performance itself in a manner befitting The Velvet Underground’s ‘The Murder Mystery’. And even if you evenly split your eyes between both scenes simultaneously, you still wouldn’t be able to grasp the buzzing activity. You would have to split your ears to catch it all too. But that is okay. It is okay for a movie to trip you up, to confuse or confound you. More movies need to do that.
It would be remiss of me not to mention some of Phantom of the Paradise‘s sweeter moments. Yes, there are blood and guts for the hard rock fans, but much to be had for the sentimental Carpenter fans too. I must confess that I am a Jessica Harper fan, and some of my favorite moments come through with her performance as Phoenix. I had no clue that she could sing, and neither did Winslow and his discovery of her at an audition. Again, excess.
Her performances of ‘Special To Me’ and ‘Old Souls’ do nothing to further the plot, and yet I am so captivated by these moments. They remind me so much of why I fell in love with movies in the first place. I guess it all feels so real in its amateurishness. Nothing about her dancing or singing feels blocked or scripted to tedium like in a Lin-Manuel Miranda production. At the outro of ‘Special To Me’, Harper lets it all loose with a dance off-stage, only to walk back exorcised of her need to move and groove. I wouldn’t even call it particularly good dancing, but that is beside the point. Her sheer confidence makes it a higher art, with an authenticity that goes beyond what the written script calls for. Disney only wishes it could capture such magic.
Before I go on a whole digression about Harper’s dance moves alone, there is another reason why it is imperative to watch this De Palma. The robots behind Daft Punk cite Phantom of the Paradise as one of their biggest creative influences. You can hear it in the vocoders, see it in their costumes, the lore of Interstella 5555. If I cannot convince you of this movie’s worth, then I hope the robots will.
Phantom of the Paradise is available on Digital HD and Blu-ray.
The film stars Paul Williams, William Finley, and Jessica Harper.