Monday, July 01, 2013

Can't you feel the vibes in your own house, man? Bad, sport, real bad.

Phantom of the Pardise was released a year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show; both films initially bombed, but while Rocky Horror has become the biggest cult movie of all time, Phantom of the Paradise has always had a much smaller fan base, outside of its massive and enduring popularity in Winnipeg (seriously). Phantom of the Paradise is also a better movie than Rocky Horror; having once attended a live show of Rocky Horror wearing a lovely velvet dress and a pair of enormous fake breasts, I don't say this lightly. While both movies feature awesome soundtracks and smashing glam-era eye candy, Phantom of the Paradise is smarter, sadder and more rewarding; a tour-de-force for Brian De Palma's playfully flamboyant direction, it's also one of his most deeply felt films.

I first heard of Phantom of the Paradise in a brief mention in a forward to the novel Phantom of the Opera, where it was described as unconventional adaptation of the book whose Phantom was disfigured after his head was trapped in a record press. The movie instantly became a must-see for me, but it was hard to find in the pre-DVD, pre-YouTube days, and it was several years later that I found a copy in a video store. I was surprised to find the movie is true to the spirit of Gaston Leroux's book, as well as incorporating Faust in the relationship between the Phantom - brilliant but severely unlucky Winslow Leach (the late, deeply underrated William Finley) - and Swan (Paul Williams), the record producer who exploits and tries to destroy Leach throughout the film. As with so many of De Palma's protagonists, Leach is seemingly doomed from the start, and while the movie has a lot of fun with the opulence of glam rock and its horror-movie take on the music industry, there's a strong undercurrent of real sadness at the destruction of the artist by the industry. Swan is a spot-on satire of megalomaniac music superproducers, but also, given that De Palma was fired from his first studio film, it's hard not to assume that he's not also getting his own revenge on Hollywood.

The movie is also unusually romantic for De Palma, in his own way, with Leach's doomed, unrequited love for Phoenix (Jessica Harper, never more radiant) forming the surprisingly affecting heart of the film. De Palma's reputation as a cold, calculating filmmaker is constantly contradicted by his empathetic treatment of his characters - just because terrible things happen to them doesn't mean he doesn't care about them. As Phantom goes to murderous lengths to ensure that Phoenix will sing his music, it'd be hard for anyone who has written lyrics or dialogue and found themselves falling a bit in love with the performers who make those words sing to not see where Winslow is coming from. The movie is De Palma's love letter to his actresses - he's fond of saying that he prefers female protagonists because it's more fun to see a woman in peril than a man, and Phantom of the Paradise suggests that explanation is sweeter than it initially sounds.

The movie is also a playground for De Palma's directorial fetishes, with nods to Hitchcock and Welles, one of his best split screen sequences and visual quotes of everything from The Godfather to Valley of the Dolls. But it's also looser and funnier than the director has been in a long time; while De Palma is satirizing the shallowness of early '70s rock, with mincing howler Beef (Gerrit Graham, hilarious) standing in for every bad T. Rex wannabe, it's also one of the best rock 'n' roll movies ever. Watching it again, I found myself wishing that, since De Palma doesn't have the same stature in the industry that he used to anyway, he might be inclined to make a movie that has more in common with the exuberance of Phantom of the Paradise than the somber moralizing of Redacted.

And a lot of the film's success is due to Williams' outstanding songs, which have the same bittersweet, strangely innocent quality as "We've Only Just Begun," "The Rainbow Connecton" and the many other classic songs he's responsible for writing. Williams is having a bit of a resurgence this year thangs to his collaboration with Daft Punk on couple of songs on their new album; when I listen to his robotic vocals on "Touch," I like to imagine they're being sung by the Phantom while plugged into his recording studio. I have a bit of hope that the renewed interest in Williams might lead to a few more people discovering Phantom of the Paradise. We might still prove to be as hip as Winnipeg.