With a resume which includes Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way, The Black Dahlia and the first cinematic Mission: Impossible, the name Brian De Palma is synonymous with action and crime thrillers, though he has also adapted his style to another genre with the two supernatural chillers he created in the late seventies, Carrie and The Fury, but within his extensive credits is another supernatural fantasy featuring deception, blackmail, revenge, false imprisonment and murder, yet set within the structure of a rock musical.
A combination of The Phantom of the Opera and Faust with aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Phantom of the Paradise was released on Hallowe’en night in 1974, the same year the Rocky Horror Show arrived in Los Angeles after its London premiere the previous summer, but a year before the cinematic adaptation would be created, and certainly long before that work penetrated public awareness.
This was also the era of the rise to fame of Alice Cooper, post School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies but pre Welcome to my Nightmare, and while Kiss had sported their trademark makeup on the cover of their debut album in February 1974, they again would not breakthrough as a major act until the release of Alive! in September 1975.
As so often, to be ahead of the wave is to be dismissed; so bold and different as to be outrageous, the film was not successful, the circumstances of its release complicated by no less than four lawsuits. Scripted by De Palma, the musical numbers were written by Paul Williams, a man who regrettably needs introduction to modern audiences, but whose songs were the soundtrack of an entire generation. Perhaps best known for having composed We’ve Only Just Begun and Rainy Days and Mondays for The Carpenters, his work has also been interpreted by Three Dog Night, Helen Reddy, David Bowie, Barbra Streisand, Jack Jones and The Muppets, with The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Christmas Carol among the many soundtracks he has contributed to.
Certainly within Phantom of the Paradise, the diversity of Williams’ work is showcased and nor is his contribution confined to the penning of songs, starring in the film as record producer Swan and contributing vocals, though for another character, songwriter Winslow Leach, the man whose work Swan has stolen and now passes off as his own as he prepares to launch his ultimate nightclub and concert venue The Paradise, not realising that the presumed dead Leach now conceals himself within the building, hiding his disfigurement behind a mask and calling himself the Phantom.
The opening number Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye is a fifties style vocal performed by greaser band The Juicy Fruits (Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Harold Oblong), whose members later perform under the name of The Beach Bums with close harmony Beach Boys pastiche Upholstery before finally morphing into The Undeads to provide the Somebody Super Like You on the opening night of The Paradise during a Frakenstein themed stage show, as the cast assemble the pieces of what will become Beef (Gerrit Graham, sung by Raymond Louis Kennedy other than in his shower scene), the leading man of the show who is killed onstage on opening night.
But the show must go on; from the flames rises Phoenix, friend to Winslow before his incarceration and tragic accident, now courted by Swan. Both men desire her, but it is Swan who can realise her dreams of being a singer while the Phantom can only watch from the shadows as her fame rises on the back of the songs which he wrote for her but for which Swan has taken credit, directing her career and asking for her hand in marriage.
An experienced Broadway performer in her feature film debut, Jessica Harper’s Phoenix first appears as a fragile character, but she was born to be a star with the directness of her performance and the depth and haunting richness of her voice reminding of the sad beauty of Karen Carpenter but with an unexpected power granting her a greater repertoire of styles. In the comprehensive new Blu-ray release, Harper recounts her audition experience, saying De Palma had seen her in some “wacky show off Broadway” and flew her out for screen tests, where she learned she was up against Linda Ronstadt, “which I still like to brag about because she didn’t get the part.”
Playing Winslow and the Phantom, William Finlay was a friend and frequent collaborator of De Palma’s, having appeared in eight of his features, his last credited role before his death being in The Black Dahlia in 2006. Though De Palma states the character was based on Phil Spector, with his wild hair, spectacles and keyboard skills, Winslow reminds of Ray Manzarek of The Doors, but in keeping with the theme of birds which runs through the film, the metal mask of the Phantom and flowing cape is modelled on a bird, a dark counterpart to Swan.
Despite the modest budget of an independent picture, De Palma’s direction is kinetic, the choices of lenses and angles unorthodox, everything emphasised as befits the spectacle of a rock opera, with glorious colour vibrant beneath the spotlights, though director of photography Larry Pizer states his favourite moment is quieter, the rooftop scene during the reprise of the showstopping Old Souls as the Phantom spies Swan and Phoenix through the skylight, the rain representing the tears his damaged eyes cannot shed.
Pleasant and softly spoken in the accompanying retrospective interviews, quite unlike the brash films he is known for, De Palma uses his favoured split screen to great effect during the Phantom’s first assault on the rehearsals at The Paradise, and the final scene of a stage splashed in blood before a baying crowd as a broken hearted girl’s dreams dissolve is almost a thematic prelude to prom night hell of Carrie White he would orchestrate two years later.
That connection is not without irony, as deep within the end credits the set dresser is listed as one Sissy Spacek, presumably brought on with production designer Jack Fisk whom she married that year, the couple having met on the set of Terence Malick’s Badlands in 1973. Fisk’s prestigious career has reunited him with Malick on The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life and To The Wonder, and he has also worked with David Lynch on The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive and Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood and The Master, and his creation of The Paradise could have been no better showcase for his work, from Swan’s record offices to the stage show of The Undeads.
Given her own dedicated interview within the supplementary features, costume designer Rosanna Norton enthuses about the work she undertook over thirty years ago, describing the influences of bondage gear, drag queens, the Carnevale di Venezia, and “as far out as I can possibly go” for Beef, finally undertaking Gerrit Graham’s costume fitting in her own home, though she admit’s the antler belt was his own suggestion. Recalling hand sewing feathers on Jessica Harper’s costume the day before shooting, she states “I’ve never worked so hard in my life” but still regards it as “one of my favourite experiences,” no small praise from a women who lists Airplane, Tron, Innerspace, The Flintstones and Barb Wire among her diverse and challenging projects.
The fortunes of others involved in the film have been diverse; now a crafter of books and songs for children and creator of The Crabby Cookbook, Jessica Harper also played the lead role in Dario Argento’s Suspiria, starred opposite Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken in the feature film version of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven and gave an astonishing reinterpretation of Janet Majors in Shock Treatment, while Gerrit Graham’s extensive credits include Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5 and most notably Quinn, outcast from the Q Continuum in the Star Trek Voyager episode Death Wish.
Laughing about his time as Beef, Graham says of the character that “the point is not that he’s gay, the point is that he’s a lunatic,” but states that filming was a challenge: “Dallas in 1973 was a creepy place to be if you were a long haired weirdo,” a memory echoed by Harper (“I had to fight them off with sticks”) though the lasting importance of the film to her is clear, the song Old Souls in particular. “Not only was it a theatrical moment in the film, it was a real moment for me in terms of wow, this is showbiz.”
That song is singled out as “one of my favourites… of my whole catalogue” by Paul Williams, who is very open about his highs and lows of his career in an extended interview conducted by friend Guillermo del Toro. Now clean and sober since 1990, he comments that “you know you’re an alcoholic when you misplace a decade,” joking that the only thing he recalls about the eighties is “the intentionally bad songs for Ishtar,” but stating he is now “passionate about recovery and passionate about creator’s rights,” he could not be more different from the character her portrays.
With one of the themes of Phantom of the Paradise being “the tension between art and money,” an idea De Palma says came to him when he heard a muzak version of a Beatles song, a work of art turned into a commodity, that battle is still fought today as musicians fight for the right to control and profit from their own work, making this a prescient film which remains relevant in the current decade.
Recalling how news and entertainment blurred during the Vietnam War and have never managed to separate themselves again, a observation satirised in Swan’s line “An assassination on live coast to coast television – that’s entertainment,” in an age where the media seems to have no depth to which it will not sink to sell itself to an audience, the film was also ahead of its time in that regard, though a more positive influence is that like the debut album of the Velvet Underground, whose influence far outstripped its initial sales, despite commercial failure upon release the effect Phantom of the Paradise had on the careers of those involved and throughout their industry can still be seen decades later.
Phantom of the Paradise is released on 24th February on Blu-ray and as a limited steelbook