***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A-
starring Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham
written and directed by Brian De Palma
by Bryant Frazer When did Brian De Palma become Brian De Palma? Some of the director's pet themes were already taking shape in his earliest films, and--following his abortive, disowned studio debut, Get to Know Your Rabbit--Sisters proved he could make something out of a lurid, over-the-top indie thriller. But only Phantom of the Paradise suggested the real scale of his outré ambition. Mixing slasher-movie tropes into a supernatural romantic fantasy with elements of rock opera, in collaboration with an actual star singer-songwriter? In 1974, apparently Brian De Palma believed he could do anything.
Financed independently but picked up for release by 20th Century Fox, Phantom of the Paradise arrived at what could have been an auspicious moment for the rock musical. If anything, De Palma was ahead of the curve: Phantom was clearly influenced by glam rock, especially Alice Cooper's stage shows, and it was conceived and shot as that wave was cresting in the U.S.. Released in '74, it had a year's head start on both Tommy and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, not to mention Kiss's epochal live LP "Alive!", which represented a pinnacle for glam-influenced hard-rock theatrics in the mainstream public imagination. And yet, Phantom bombed. Well, it was a difficult film to sell to audiences. It was a musical, yes, but full of songs nobody knew. It was a horror movie, yes, but it was campy and idiosyncratic. And it was a comedy, to be sure, but a caustic and cynical one.
De Palma updated The Phantom of the Opera for the rock era using Goethe's Faust as the rough source material for a story about young artists signing away their creative lives to moneyed record executives. Phantom of the Paradise revolves around Swan (real-life hitmaker Paul Williams), a shadowy music mogul who packages artists, putting potential hit songs between the willing lips of flavour-of-the-month charlatans. The protagonist, inasmuch as the film has one, is Winslow Leach (De Palma stalwart William Finley), a young, idealistic songwriter whose gift for a melody catches Swan's ear. Through a series of unfortunate events, Winslow is disfigured in an accident at a record-pressing plant and dons a bird mask to conceal his half-melted face. He becomes the titular phantom, lurking backstage, in the rafters, and in the box seats of the Paradise, where he keeps his good eye on Phoenix (De Palma discovery Jessica Harper), the pretty ingénue in whose ambition Swan senses a neediness that makes her first an object of his desire, then a target of his sadism.
De Palma must have felt his Phantom got a tremendous boost when Williams agreed not just to provide the songs, but also to appear in the role of the fiendish puppetmaster Swan. Williams's appearance on screen, in a boyish, five-foot-two frame that ill suits a powerful movie villain, would be unflattering if it didn't testify to his sense of humour about his own diminutive stature. (Rock critic Robert Christgau claims Williams once described himself as looking like a gym teacher from Bryn Mawr, which about sums it up.) Instead, Williams comes across as a likeable, genuinely nice guy having a ball hamming it up on the big screen. That is to say, he's mostly unconvincing in the role. For a time, De Palma wanted Williams to play Winslow, but Williams demurred, feeling that he wouldn't cut an imposing figure as the phantom. And Finley is fine in that role, acting his damn heart out with just one big eye visible underneath his mask.
Part of De Palma's agenda is to show the corrupting influence of bad taste, how the "business" part of the music business grinds raw talent into bland, radio-friendly pabulum, so I don't know if his case is helped much by the Paul Williams score, which is middle-of-the-road by definition. Don't get me wrong; I wore out my cassette of The Muppet Movie soundtrack when I was 10. The songs here should have been written by someone who was at least as rock-and-roll as Brian De Palma, though, and Paul Williams isn't. (Then again: who else from that era could possibly have gone toe-to-toe with De Palma in what amounts, nearly, to a role as co-auteur? Well, Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson; after that I'm out of ideas.)
Anyway, Williams and De Palma have a fine old time mocking tired musical trends. A fictional band, The Juicy Fruits (its leaders are portrayed by Archie Hahn, Peter Elbling, and Jeffrey Comanor), performs in three equally contrived traditions--first in full Sha-Na-Na-style greaser regalia, next surrounded by bikini girls in a sun-damaged Beach Boys pastiche, and finally in an elaborately-staged Caligari-meets-Frankenstein milieu, where they pantomime dismemberment of audience members. At that point, they've been demoted to second-banana status as a backing band for Beef (Gerrit Graham), a new Swan discovery (and outrageous gay stereotype) who struts about in shredded tank top and tights. Jessica Harper contributes a couple of numbers as well. She has a fine singing voice, the camera loves her, and it's a good thing she gets those showcase scenes because her character has nothing else going on beyond an eventual gig as the requisite damsel in distress.
What De Palma lacks in characterization he makes up for in clever, joyful technique, especially a much-discussed, multi-layered visual style that highlights both foreground and background action across the depth of the frame. Even more explicitly, the splitscreen format he employed in Sisters (and before that, in the theatrical documentary Dionysus in '69) is back in a sequence that shows us front-of-house and backstage perspectives simultaneously. (The tricky bit is that only we in the audience notice the Phantom planting a ticking time bomb amidst all the vintage-tacky set-dressing before the stage show is set in motion.) What's bracing about De Palma's splitscreens is the way they seem to instantly open up the entire world--there is an increased urgency that comes partly from the sudden privilege of the second point of view and partly from the sense of visual panic that this inspires. Now what do we look at, we ask? As we take in one frame, how do we know we're not missing something important on the other side? The movie responds: Look harder.
There are other quintessential De Palma moments. I was struck by the scene late in the film when Phoenix, intoxicated by her first taste of stardom, has agreed to return with Swan to his own private Xanadu (he calls the estate "Swanage," which is, like many of the movie's jokes, dryly hilarious). As they lay together in Swan's bed, the heartbroken Winslow watches from the roof, through a skylight, and the visible portion of his face twists into a rictus of pain. Rivulets of rainwater sliding down the glass between Winslow and De Palma's camera draw tears across his visage. He is a spectator, not a participant, and so his voyeurism is conflated with his misery. There are moments of more naked emotion in De Palma's filmography, but not many of them--it's as pure as expressions of erotic longing get. And the film's bloody ending takes place, of course, on stage, as the increasingly crazed audience riots, feeding off the violence. There's a feeling here of getting a glimpse into a kind of afterlife. As the Phantom's soul flees his body, De Palma's camera backs up and up, into the rafters, leaving behind the mortal world that treated Winslow so poorly. It reminds me of the ending of Blow Out, when John Travolta weeps as the miracle of post-sync audio--the only magic he knows--blesses his murdered lover with the most tawdry immortality.
Yet for all this sensitivity to tragedy, De Palma is already earning his reputation as a mean-spirited cuss. He's not exactly generous to Phoenix, treating her as a pretty face and captivating voice whose corruption is a trivial challenge for Swan. (Swan conquers her with a bare whiff of fame and fortune.) Winslow is some kind of hero, but still he's portrayed as an out-of-touch music-nerd type, a cry-baby swaddled in unearned pretension and needled by professional jealousy. "Get this fag out of here," Swan sneers upon finding Winslow disguised as a woman in his writhing harem of wannabes. The swishy Beef is just plain old-fashioned gay bait. De Palma stages a shower scene that has the Phantom sneaking into Beef's bathroom and shoving a toilet plunger into his face. Sure, it's a Hitchcock riff as slapstick and largely harmless. Still, there's something about the implied scatology that positions Beef as the butt of an exceptionally vulgar joke, as opposed to the other bit players in the big rock-and-roll pageant. If you're wondering why The Rocky Horror Picture Show--an inferior movie by just about any reasonable estimation of cinematic technique--has become a perennial outsider classic while Phantom remains a cult footnote boasting of being inexplicably big in Winnipeg, you'll find it there. De Palma sees glam-rock dress-up as an insult to real artistry; Rocky Horror posits it as an expression of sexual and psychological freedom. Tim Curry's corseted Frank N. Furter whispers, "Don't dream it, be it," and poor Beef gets to eat shit. Yes, De Palma is clearly a visionary here, but he also comes across as a scold, and the movie is harder to embrace for it.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
On the new Scream Factory Blu-ray Disc, the Phantom is pristine--maybe too pristine. I didn't scrutinize every last shot for imperfections, but this is one of the only HiDef releases of a vintage title I've seen that doesn't bear even some tiny scars (dust, dirt, scratches) that testify to its previous life inside a film can. I did notice a bit of image wobble when supporting actor George Memmoli's credit appears on screen, although there are no specks to be seen. I assume some fairly aggressive digital dust-busting techniques were employed, and yet the whole picture is crisp and detailed, with a fine layer of grain visible in almost every shot. Sometimes, the actors' faces do seem to exhibit the sort of waxy complexion often associated with overly aggressive DVNR, and that hint of excessive gloss is the only complaint I can muster. I don't mind a bit of dirt in my transfers, but this one is completely clean and it looks good. Exceptionally good. I have to wonder if this is really what Phantom looked like in its original release, though.
Sound quality is similarly pristine. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track must be a good approximation of what the film sounded like in 1974 with four mag channels of surround sound. You can crank it up--way up--without inducing distortion or revealing problems with the original recordings. The frenzied organ lines and wild drum riffs of the rock freak-out that accompanies the finale are minutely detailed in the overall soundmix, while the surrounds added some roomy-sounding ambience even in my dinky living room. A 2.0 DTS-HD MA matrixed-stereo soundtrack is also on board. In Pro-Logic mode, it sounds almost identical to the 5.1 option, with plenty of surround ambience during the musical numbers. However, since Phantom of the Paradise predates Dolby Stereo, it's likely that most theaters screened the picture in mono, so why include a watered-down pass at the same surround soundtrack rather than that mono mix?
Parent company Shout! Factory has gone a little crazy in the extras department. Your usual Blu-ray/DVD combo package puts the feature on both discs, along with the same bundle of supplements, but the DVD in this case doesn't contain the film. Instead, it's packed to the gills with extras that didn't fit on the Blu, many of them borrowed from previous SEs by French label Opening and the UK's Arrow Films. If you're only inclined to check out one extra, try the 2006 documentary "Paradise Regained: Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise" (50 mins., SD). Most of the principals are here, led by De Palma and Williams. Also present is the late William Finley, his fellow actors Graham, Harper, Elbling, and Hahn, film editor Paul Hirsch, cinematographer Larry Pizer, and producer Ed Pressman. Created by Opening, this feature collects most of the juicy Phantom anecdotes in one place and boasts some reasonably candid moments. De Palma talks about what inspired the idea (a Muzak version of a Beatles song playing in an elevator), the model for Swan (Phil Spector), and his feelings about the intersection of art and economics (disdain). Graham steals the show, however, slipping easily in and out of French as he discusses the Texas shoot, including his interest in the strait-laced southern college girls who danced on stage during Phantom's climax. ("They all grew up to vote for George W. Bush," he says.) Although it's not a complete revelation and exhibits some distracting temporal artifacts that I attribute to format conversion between PAL and NTSC, it's a definite cut above the typical talking-head DVD doc.
Heading back to the Blu-ray, we find a pair of audio commentaries. The first is a three-in-one affair that cuts between a loose session with the members of the Juicy Fruits/Beach Bums/Undeads, and separate solo spiels by Harper and Graham. It's rife with anecdotes about being directed by Brian De Palma, and it's engaging as far as it goes, though much of this ground is well-covered elsewhere. It is interesting to hear Graham recount his first reading for De Palma and Williams, during which they urged him to be more "flamboyant" until he finally realized what they were getting at. "The prospect of doing an entire movie in what seemed to be cheap gay shtick was disconcerting, to say the least," he says. The second track is handed over to production designer Jack Fisk, who got the job after working on Badlands with producer Pressman. "My advantage over other production designers was I liked to build and paint," he says, remembering that the camera would often start rolling before his paint was dry.
Fisk also contributes a voiceover introducing seven-and-a-half minutes of deleted or altered footage, in HD, featuring references to Swan Song Enterprises that were removed upon threat of lawsuit from nascent real-world company Swan Song Records, Led Zeppelin's label. That resulted in some awkward edits and crude black mattes. (A full restoration of the footage to its rightful continuity in the film is apparently not in the cards, but a fan edit that reinstates all the Swan Song mentions can be found online.) Phantom superfan website The Swan Archives receives credit for providing the footage.
In "Brian De Palma Backstage at the Paradise," a new HD feature created for the Scream Factory release, the director spends 33 minutes talking about the film, at one point touching on the severing of his professional relationship with co-writer Louisa Rose, who balked at letting the screenplay be sold for $25,000. He gets positively righteous about his rigorous approach to visual storytelling. "I've always said that it's gotten worse because of television," he says. "Television is basically radio. Talk is cheap. It's easy to shoot. You basically set the camera down and people talk to each other... That's the way you cover a lot of material efficiently and economically, but it's not cinema." Its counterpart is "Paul Williams Soul Inspiration", a 35-minute Paul Williams gabfest in HD. There's an awful lot of Williams in this set, though to be fair, he seems lovely. He appears to remain completely humble about the experience and grateful for the opportunity, describing his current collaborations with Daft Punk and Guillermo del Toro as "absolutely a gift of Phantom of the Paradise." That's right--this movie set the wheels in motion that would eventually crank out a Pan's Labyrinth stage musical. Thanks, Brian De Palma.
Paul Williams devotees will be the primary audience for a separate conversation, taped for the Arrow Video Blu-ray earlier this year, that has him taking questions from del Toro himself for no fewer than 72 minutes. Among the topics are Williams's childhood and pre-Phantom collaborations with Roger Nichols, Jack Conrad, Three Dog Night, and The Carpenters, his long-standing aspiration to be an actor ("I felt like Montgomery Clift, but I looked like Hayley Mills," he cracks), and the moral rights of the artist. He does attempt to set the story straight in one regard: One reason he didn't want to play the Phantom, he says, is that "I didn't want anyone to think I was saying that I had been ripped off by the music business."
"Behind the Mask with Tom Burman" runs just over four minutes in HD, looking briefly at the creation of the Phantom's facial disfigurements and his mask. Burman describes himself as the partner of credited makeup designer John Chambers. "[Chambers] never did a thing on the film," Burman says. Of the iconic bird mask, he claims, "I drew it and my brother sculpted it, made the mold, and cast it in fibreglass." That would be news to costume designer Rosanna Norton, who turns in a nine-and-a-half-minute standard-def DV interview in which she remembers designing the mask, though she says Chambers made some changes to the design before actually building it. (The two stories jibe better when you consider that Burman says he never actually met anyone from the production other than associate producer Paul Lewis.)
Viewers dedicated to the study of De Palma technique may thrill to the bonus footage assembled here, mostly in the form of alternate and extended angles and takes presented in multiple windows on the screen as the film's soundtrack plays. This material mainly comprises several of the musical numbers, along with extended versions of a couple of Finley's key scenes. It all amounts to just under a half-hour of viewing, and while it's sometimes interesting to see what was discarded in the cutting room, De Palma and editor Paul Hirsch generally knew best when they jettisoned it in the first place. There's even a glimpse of the title card reading "Brian De Palma's Phantom," created before "...of the Paradise" was tacked on to head off any possible trouble related to the comic-book character of the same name.
Eventually, time invested in this Collector's Edition starts to provide diminishing returns, depending on your interests. You can spend 19 minutes with producer Ed Pressman, who speaks carefully and somewhat hesitantly about the production. Recounting one very painful memory, he says he failed to sign the insurance policy on the film that would have insulated it from the aforementioned Swan Song lawsuit, were it in force. He also recalls a lawsuit from Universal that claimed the production was violating its Phantom of the Opera copyright. De Palma and co. believed it could be successfully defended as a parody, but Fox was unwilling to let the dispute go to court.
I wish I could say this package is all killer, no filler, but here's where the fatigue really sets in. Veteran L.A. session drummer Gary Mallaber, who played on Phantom's backing tracks and appears on screen during full-band performances, goes on for a solid 17 minutes (in SD) about working with Paul Williams in "In the Studio with Gary Mallaber", which'll be of most interest to pop aficionados who care about Mallaber's rep as a studio compadre of Van Morrison, Steve Miller, and other rockers. Next up is "John Alvin Neon Tribute", a 12-minute SD interview with Andrea Alvin, widow of the artist whose career in key art included Phantom as well as Blazing Saddles, E.T., Blade Runner, The Lion King, and more. Both are Scream Factory exclusives for this Blu-ray release.
Filling out the package are "William Finley and Toy," a 33-second outtake (in SD) that sees Finley checking out a toy Phantom that comes with silver dental work, a helmet, and a tiny plunger; a disposable one-minute-long intro, "Rehab with the Juicy Fruits 2014," that plays when you select the audio commentary featuring those actors; a two-and-a-half-minute collection of radio spots, most of them narrated by Wolfman Jack; more than five minutes of TV spots; another five minutes of theatrical trailers (two of 'em); and two still galleries collecting production stills, promo and publicity materials, and a few shots of theatres playing the film. Scream Factory has outdone itself in some ways, but a stronger editorial sensibility might have helped here. This collection of material is at once exhaustive and exhausting.