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Music Movie Mondays: The Phantom of the Paradise

August 16, 2010

I’m not sure what to make of Brian De Palma’s The Phantom of the Paradise. Recasting The Phantom of the Opera as a diatribe against 1974’s mainstream music industry certainly spoke to me more than Rupert Julian’s 1925 silent standard bearer and rocked much harder than Andrew Lloyd Weber’s subsequent attempt at the story. I know I was anticipating it. Snarky’s Machine recently wrote a piece on rock operas that highlighted it. Several friends and Tegan and Sara’s Sara Quin are fans. I know I liked it, but I’m not sure how to write about it.

I should also preface by stating that I’m by no means an expert on De Palma. I’ve seen Sisters, which disturbed me. I haven’t yet seen Blow Out or Body Double, two movies film scholar types like to discuss because of their aesthetics and murky relationship with auteurs’ scopophilic gaze. Beyond that, I’ve only seen De Palma’s inaugural installment of the Mission Impossible series, which I will pass over in silence. What I knew going in to my screening of Sisters is that De Palma loves Hitchcock. So much is true here in the framing, editing, set design, music cues, and direct filmic reference — all are meant to be gorgeous and startling while evoking unease in the viewer, who is watching beautifully rendered images of unsettling things.

Paradise seems to require these arresting visuals, as it is a superficially conventional story. Gaston Leroux’s source material about a young opera construction worker who falls in love with an ingenue and uses her voice as his vessel may have been seemed well-worn territory in 1910. Adding elements of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the story of Faust into a backstage musical about the corrupt practices of the entertainment industry may exacerbate its familiarity. The story focuses on a composer named Winslow Leach (William Finley) whose rock cantata is swiped by evil Death Records’ executive, Swan (Williams). Leach doesn’t realize until he meets no-name Phoenix (Jessica Harper) and a gaggle of chorus girls auditioning for Swan’s new cantata about Faust. Once he becomes aware of the ruse, Leach is framed for drug smuggling by Swan’s goons and sent to prison in Sing-Sing, where his teeth are removed. Later, he strikes up his own Faustian bargain with Swan that shackles him to the executive, who in turn casts glam rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham) in Leach’s part. Swan eventually makes Phoenix into a major pop star after Leach kills Beef. Both Leach and Swan end up ostensibly killing each other during Swan’s wedding to Phoenix, leaving the would-be wife left to grieve for both of them in song.

Actually, as I type the synopsis, the movie does seem strange. However, these sorts of tales tend to have one damsel caught between two men’s dueling affections, which usually smack of chivalry’s latent chauvinism.

But what makes the movie interesting — apart from the aesthetics and Williams’s music — is its telling moments of commentary. The movie opens on a performance by the Juicy Fruits, a group of teen idol no-goodniks who recall Sha Na Na. The band later forms into the Beach Bums, a derivative attempt to cash in on surf rock. The band eventually morph into the Undead, who seem like a psychedelic bricolage of the Mysterions, the Doors, and Alice Cooper. In short, the band is whatever Swan requires, as well as an indication of the music industry’s ability to recycle and puff up the import of ultimately unremarkable musical acts. Note also how Swan deftly swindles Leach into a debilitating contract and casts Beef from an interchangable group of now bands who rotate around his desk, which is made to look like a gold record. Beef himself is an interesting character as well, presenting a homophobic caricature of rock’s homoerotic masculine camp.

Finally, Phoenix’s rise is marked with the music industry’s misogyny repackaged as postfeminist empowerment. This is clear from her “casting couch” audition for Swan, orchestrated by sleazy assistant Philbin (George Memmoli), to the betrothal to her Svengali, which was aborted by the other man responsible for her ascendancy. Hopefully she can break free from the hold Swan and Leach have on her and find her own voice.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2010 3:59 pm

    Fantastic review! De Palma like Kube simply does not know what to do with women, except terrorize or objectify them. Though in Kube’s defense, at least he doesn’t bother including them in his work much.

    It’s interesting that you didn’t enjoy M:I, which is probably the most accessible of De Palma’s work and also the least problematic, in terms of its depiction of women.

    If you liked Phantom you might enjoy Home Movies or The Untouchables, the only two films of his, I ever recommend. They seem to strike a similar note – though in a less polished way in Home Movies – but seem to showcase De Palma’s visual strengths, which are pretty amazing.

    I don’t know anyone who really likes Sisters. Body Double is meh, and seems to drive home the point that for the most part, De Palma’s often a hired gun (like Bay or even Harold Becker).

  2. August 16, 2010 4:05 pm

    I bet folks thought I was gonna have a De Palma sized shit fit and fall in it! 🙂

  3. August 16, 2010 4:08 pm

    I almost accidentally watched Body Double this weekend because I first thought it was Body Heat, and then I thought that would be a good double feature to host for a movie club.

  4. August 17, 2010 8:30 am

    This has long been a favorite of mine… I think I first liked it mainly for its pre-“Revenge of the Nerds” portrayal of geek fatalism. Paul Williams did a brilliant job with the songs, aptly sending up the genres you named.

    I’m also an unabashed fan of Body Double, despite its being the most blatant homage to Hitchcock this side of Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety. Credit DePalma for including flash-in-the-pan “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” in the extended pr0n filming scene (where’s the money shot?)

  5. August 17, 2010 10:52 am

    I have to confess that I was really scared of the Phantom as a child so I have never watched this movie. I don’t know why, but when I saw the VHS box for the film at my local video store the Phantom’s mask totally terrified me. Now watching the preview and seeing a fairly high camp factor, I feel silly for having ever been scared. I’m gonna put it in my Netflix queue right now!

  6. Alyx Vesey permalink
    August 17, 2010 11:40 am

    @Snarky’s Machine De Palma’s reputation as a hired gun is certainly not lost on me (hmmm, actually, hired gun auteurs might be an interesting area to consider, since folks always assume auteurs are projecting their uncompromising vision, which is not actually the case — you could throw Robert Altman in that category too). I’ll make sure to check out Home Movies and the Untouchables. Thanks!

    @redlami Williams’s music is great! I also noticed a striking similarity between “Old Souls” and some of the Carpenters’ songs, some of which he wrote.

    @chriso I totally relate to what you’re saying, and would be interested to hear your thoughts on the movie.

  7. August 17, 2010 1:07 pm

    you could throw Robert Altman in that category too

    I’ve never considred Altman a hired gun, but it’s an interesting perspective to consider.

  8. August 17, 2010 1:35 pm

    Who is Tegan & Sara? I mean mostly associate them with people whose taste in music I think is bland, uninspired and super white. Are they worth checking out?

  9. August 17, 2010 4:29 pm

    Tegan & Sara sound good one day of the year to me — which was the day I downloaded a bunch of records — but I tend to always skip over them when they come up now.

  10. August 17, 2010 5:05 pm

    I think Rilo Kiley was my limit.


  1. Music Movie Mondays with I Fry Mine in Butter: The Phantom of the Paradise « Feminist Music Geek
  2. Black Swan: Aren’t You Glad I Didn’t Say De Palma? « Pop Morsels

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