Music Movie Mondays: The Phantom of the Paradise
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.