Genre: Dramatic Comedy, Fantasy, and Musical Running Time: 1 hr. 31 min.
Release Date: November 1st, 1974 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Brian De Palma Actors: William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli, Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, Peter Elbling
is past is a mystery, but his work is already a legend: Swan (Paul Williams) is one of the most accomplished musicians of all time, now managing the famous band “The Juicy Fruits,” while also in the process of opening the ultimate rock palace, the Paradise. In the meantime, the popular group performs at the less grandiose Majestic theater, to a crowd of somewhat indifferent dancers. And the next artist, Winslow Leach (William Finley), is set to play the piano after a 20 minute break.
Upstairs, right-hand-man Philbin (George Memmoli) whines over the loss of a woman whom he turned into a star. Now he’s after revenge, asking the powerful, revered, influential, unseen, white-gloved producer, Mr. Swan, to ruin her lucrative career. The conversation is cut short when the Death Records mogul hears Leach play, insisting that he’s found the composer to open the Paradise. But Winslow’s cantata, which is a several-hundred-page series of songs about Faust, isn’t the kind of thing Swan wants to manage – he wants to own it. A short time later, Swan begins auditioning girls for the opening of the Paradise, having stolen Winslow’s music. And when the artist tries to confront Swan at his estate, he’s thrown out and framed as a drug dealer.
Six months into a lengthy stint at Sing Sing, Winslow goes berserk and escapes, journeying to Death Records to reap vengeance. But a horrible accident at the facility (in a record-pressing machine) disfigures his face and robs him of his voice, all before he flees from the premises and tumbles into the East River. When Leach makes his fateful return, he’s hellbent on bloodshed and costumed to match (donning a black cloak, leathery garb, a silver helmet to conceal his identity, and pale makeup), plotting to blow up the sets at the Paradise. Instead, in a fateful twist, he joins forces with his nemesis to shape the talent at the venue, including spirited singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper).
“Phantom of the Paradise” is almost an opera, what with its ever-present music, transitioning from spoken moments to rehearsals to stage performances, as background tunes strike up continuously. And it’s also quite the visual conundrum, boasting outrageous costumes, vivid makeup, and cartoonish props to go along with unique lighting and editing and framing. With its gothic and transvestic fashions, preoccupation with Faustian themes (the protagonist practically becomes embroiled in his own deal with Mephisto), and rock music, it was surely an influence for the following year’s “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Alternating indescribable weirdness and laugh-out-loud humor (as well as combinational sequences of hilarious bizarreness), “Phantom of the Paradise” is unlike anything before it. It’s not always spectacular (though thanks to its unpredictable oddness, it’s certainly not boring), but the designs are impressive and the music is rousing; many moments are like watching a live concert with colorful, interactive stage gimmickry. Plus, it has a spectacularly satisfying finale. An unexpected entry in writer/director Brian De Palma’s filmography (arriving just before his notable string of psychological thrillers), the film is – if nothing else – an unforgettable smorgasbord of music and mania.
– Mike Massie