Some of the most fun I’ve had watching movies are the rock operas from the 70s. Pretty much everybody has seen Rocky Horror Picture Show and is aware how fun that film is. Some know about the surreal beauty of the film adaptation of The Who’s concept album Tommy directed by a very unique director Ken Russell.
Side note: If you wish to read more about my opinion of Tommy, I have a blog post for that.
Perhaps the lesser known of the rock opera sub-genre is Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise.
It wasn’t until I listened to Bret Easton Ellis discussing it on his podcast that I became aware of this film. He’s discussed seeing it at the age of 10 and how much of a thrilling experience that was and also discusses it with the musician Peaches who is also a fan. The film has influenced directors like Guillermo Del Toro and Edgar Wright and also influences musicians like Daft Punk, who claim to have seen it over 20 times.
Phantom of the Paradise is one of the greatest underrated gems you’ll ever come across. For a film rarely discussed except among the cult fanbase, it’s a masterpiece that makes you wonder why it’s not more known and why it wasn’t a box office success upon release.
This film is not only a re-telling of Phantom of the Opera but also has bits of Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray sprinkled throughout it. A composer (William Finley) is screwed over by a powerful record producer Swan (Paul Williams) and soon returns to sabotage the opening of his new rock club The Paradise until Swan gives into The Phantom’s demands and allows a very talented singer (Jessica Harper) to perform his cantata.
The film’s opening is one of the greatest openings you could ever imagine for a film. In a voice over performed by the great Rod Serling, we hear the history of Swan’s career, which is reminiscent of Phil Spector. We then open on his latest project, the 50s nostalgia act The Juicyfruits who are a comedic parody of Sha Na Na perform the amazing song, Goodbye Eddie Goodbye, a dark but humorous song about a singer committing suicide in order for his album to reach #1 in order for his sister to pay for an operation.
The soundtrack for Phantom of the Paradise is perfection and due to its high quality it’s obvious one of the greatest songwriters to ever work and the film’s bad guy, Paul Williams wrote all the music. Goodbye Eddie Goodbye and Special To Me, a song Jessica Harper sings during her audition are perhaps my favorites. It was perfect casting to have Jessica Harper portray Phoenix, a singer so talented she rattles Swan since she might even be greater than him since Harper has the same amount of talent as the character she’s portraying.
The casting overall in this film is fantastic. William Finley is great as The Phantom but perfect when he’s Winslow Leach, a quirky composer who soon has his word turned upside down. Paul Williams is perfect as the Napoleon like narcissistic Swan. His performance combined with the script makes for an interesting villain. Archie Hahn, Jeffery Comanor and Peter Elbling portray the three main groups used within the film, The Juicy Fruits, The Beach Bums and The Undeads and all three times give fantastic performances. Jessica Harper as mentioned before is wonderful in her role and you can’t imagine anybody else as Phoenix. One of my two favorite performances in the film was George Memmoli as Swan’s sidekick/goon Philbin. Memmoli is a great character actor who gets a great role in this film and delivers.
And of course, the great comedic character actor Gerrit Graham as the gay shock rock musician Beef truly steals the show. This role of an overly feminine David Bowie type of singer played in a comedic way is so much fun to watch and is given multiple memorable lines worthy of quoting along with the film.
One of the many reasons Phantom of the Paradise has aged so well is how open and honest it is regarding drugs in the entertainment industry. Phantom of the Paradise is unique in its drug use in that it isn’t shown as relaxing or therapeutic but drugs are shown as what keeps the wheels spinning and the money coming in Swan’s world. Philbin is shown multiple times shoving a fistful of pills into a performer’s mouth as a solution to the current conflict. The most memorable drug scene is when Swan visits The Phantom in his downstairs recording studio with a Hunter S Thompson suitcase and announces that he brought breakfast.
From the tragic deaths of celebrities we’ve seen over the past few decades, the exploitation of drugs shown in this film is far closer to reality than it is something along the lines of Reefer Madness or a D.A.R.E. PSA.
Phantom of the Paradise is an underrated gem that seems to only get better with time as the average film tends to reach a lower level of mediocrity. Film budgets are something I tend to be aware of while watching a film and it’s amazing how this film costed what would be equivalent to eight million dollars today while many films with five, ten or even twenty times the budget of Phantom of the Paradise are unable to rival the originality, creativity and substance this film possesses.
Phantom of the Paradise is a wonderful and colorful journey that is far more fulfilling and energizing than the average film.