[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
The Phantom of the Paradise is funny and entertaining. It’s best as a comedy grounded in rock culture and it’s somewhat less successful as a humorous horror film. Perhaps because rock music has a power that exceeds that of a routinely developed horror plot, there’s a skittish lack of conviction to its terror side—even with an enjoyably gory ending. But its sendups of various rock&roll fashions are often good and it does rather nicely with its sense of the gangsterish side of the business.
It opens with a socko number, one of those parodies of Fifties rock that is really a Seventies pop-culture fantasy of what the Fifties ought to have been like. The movie that follows, however, is something else altogether: a rock-era Phantom of the Opera with the Opera replaced by the Paradise, an ultimate in rock palaces. The Paradise is masterminded by a pop-music empire-builder who just happens to be a cutesy Mephistopheles (played by Williams, who just happens to be author of Phantom‘s music and one of its backers). The title character is an unprepossessing writer-performer (William Finley) who loses his songs, his teeth, his voice, and half of his face before he sets about terrorizing the Paradise. There are also a Girl Singer (Jessica Harper) who stops being a “nice girl” when she gets her Big Moment, a homosexual rock star (Gerrit Graham) who seems a parody of androgynous rockers as well as of the gay variety of muscular narcissism, and the Paradise’s number-one strongarm man (George Memmoli), a figure who neatly evokes the thuggish and purely mercenary elements which seem to linger behind the scenes in many branches of show business.
But de Palma’s film is less about these people than about their scene. The comedy is uneven, but its satirical side has a wicked edge to it. The Paradise empire mixes hype, technology, and brute force in ways that leave it pointedly close to the capitalistic aggression which so much of the current pop culture still pretends to deplore. The Paradise technology permits the Phantom to have his voice restored for recording purposes, at least—and this becomes a jibe not only at studio-created “singers” but also at the perverse alchemy and consummate artificiality of the modern mass media. The final numbers play—to good satiric effect—on rock audiences’ fascination with violent ecstasy (and ecstatic violence) and thus make some ferociously darkhumored comments on the ultimate logic of the music itself. But Phantom falls well short of the nutty elation of Rafelson’s Head and Lester’s Beatle films and lacks Performance‘s profound, surrealist grasp of Dionysian violence. Still, it’s a worthy addition to the growing rock movie genres. And, as part of the film’s advertising helps us to see, Phantom is intriguingly relevant to an era where music sometimes seems to have subsumed all morality. “He Sold His Soul For Rock ‘N’ Roll!” At last, a sin we know something about.
PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE
Screenplay and direction: Brian de Palma. Cinematography: Larry Piser. Art direction: Jack Fisk. Editing: Paul Hirsch. Music and songs: Paul Williams. Choreography: Harold Oblong.
The Players: Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Parker, Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli, Harold Oblong, Jeffrey Comanor, Archie Hahn.
Copyright © 1975 Peter Hogue