Things have been quiet on the site for a long time now. Life does it’s own thing. Here however, is a guest review from a very good friend of mine, @henryatthemovies.
With the lush colours, mad story, blend of soulful ballads and adrenaline boosting rock ‘n roll; it certainly can be said that Brian De Palma gave the Phantom of the Opera story a bump of coke and dressed it up in flares and a sequin cape. The 70’s re-contextualisation of Gaston Leroux’s original 1910 novel transforms the gothic mystery novel into a commentary on the music industry of the time, with a healthy mix of Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray to bring a supernatural spin on the idea of selling your soul for rock and roll. Its’ inception came from De Palma hearing The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’ transformed into elevator music; sad how this beautiful song had been turned into soulless corporate background music. This was the genesis of this crazy commentary on the 70’s rock scene and filled it with sexual manipulation, back stabbing and musical neutering.
A lowly songwriter, Winslow Leach, has his music stolen by the mysterious record producer Swan and is thrown in prison. After an accident leaves him disfigured, he becomes the thorn in Swan’s side as he tries to champion the talent of the timid singer, Phoenix. That’s the setup but it’s a plot that’s brimming with so much. Things get crazier as it goes on, the unpredictability of a plot that reaches an insane conclusion that feels suited to the film. It’s a very free adaptation of Leroux’s novel, taking a good portion from the 1943 Universal remake. De Palma isn’t bound to the source material; he adds so much to the story, using that base as a jumping board for his own creativity.
It still has echoes of the Phantom novel with the mysterious hermit dispatching an ostentatious singer and replacing them with his own unknown, timid muse. The Faustian aspects allows for critiques on the music industry; Winslow signs a contract in his own blood and there is a later Satanic twist involving Swan. There is not a single scene that drags, they all entertain and work in the grand scheme of things. My favourite is the ‘Upholstery’ car bomb sequence where De Palma pays tribute to the legendary opening sequence of Touch of Evil but with split-screen. The tension builds up off-stage as we witness the first of the Phantom’s sabotage attempts that builds uneasiness in the audience as one of the Juicy Fruits becomes paranoid about a ticking noise. Behind the scenes we see the exploitative nature of the music business hidden behind the fun music and bright colours.
I often hear comparisons between this film and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both being rock and roll centred musicals with plain, normal characters thrust into a realm of freakishness. The two were also failures upon release but found new life as midnight cult movies, though Phantom beat Rocky Horror to the cinema by a year. Another fun connection is that Jessica Harper (Phoenix) played Janet in the sequel to Rocky Horror – Shock Treatment (1981). Rocky Horror’s two leads, Brad and Janet, are very normal people who get sucked into the world of the mad scientist Dr Frank N Furter. Phoenix is the closest we get to a normal character in this film; our ‘hero’ Winslow shows from the beginning that he is unstable and can teeter between rationality and irrationality.
They’re really the only two main characters with any positive traits even though Winslow does resort to murdering people and violently disrupting the goings on at the Paradise. Winslow is a great anti-hero who can be both sympathetic and terrifying in the same scene. Finley’s bug eyes lend him a rather scary look that served him well in De Palma’s Sisters (1973) as it does here but it’s the dark avian look of the Phantom costume with the silver teeth that creates a menacing and iconic look. The bird look also pairs with Swan Songs dead bird logo – Swan has destroyed the songbird but this one rose up against him. Great work by costume designer Rosanna Norton and Finley for their aesthetic.
Up against Bill Finley as Leach is singer-songwriter Paul Williams as Swan. It’s genius casting having this embodiment of music scumbaggery being portrayed by a 5ft 2 soft-spoken, mop headed pianist known for writing songs for the Muppets (among others). It gives Swan an unassuming demeanour that hides his true malevolence. Originally called Spectre (in a not so subtle nod to producing superstar Phil Spector), we don’t see his face when we are first introduced to him, we only see who he is at the orgy scene. Discussing Winslow with Philbin, the faceless producer here begins to plot how to take Winslow’s pop cantata and manipulate it into something that suits the clean-cut Juicy Fruits. Gerrit Graham as glam rocker Beef is a part of Swan’s mutilation of Winslow’s music and is played with outlandish brilliance (his lip syncing not included). The glam rocker is this version’s Carlotta from Opera and his story beats are similar to her own, with an added ‘electrifying’ finale. A memorable moment between Beef and the Phantom is a drawn out homage to Psycho’s iconic shower scene with it’s own twist on the payoff. The glam rocker is a juxtaposition to the soft spoken Jessica Harper as Phoenix, who Winslow deems to be the only one who should sing his music. While not the most interesting character in the film, Harper makes up for it with her wonderful musical numbers and she is a strong actress.
Not only did Paul Williams take on the role of Swan, he was also responsible for the film’s fantastic score; writing the songs as well as lending his voice to ‘Faust’ and the ending song ‘The Hell of It.’ Due to the inclusion of the genre shifting Juicy Fruits/Beach Bums/The Undead, Williams proves his excellent song writing skills by managing to create three separate songs in different styles: doo-wop, surf and glam rock. ‘Faust’ is transformed from a soulful section of Winslow’s pop cantata into the superficial (yet incredibly fun) ‘Upholstery,’ replacing deeper emotions for a surface level summer romance with girls and cars – very reminiscent of early tracks from the Beach Boys. There are two songs that also share similar traits: ‘Life at Last’ and ‘Old Souls.’ The bombastic ‘Life at Last’ is performed by Beef with unashamed brashness and flamboyancy whilst Phoenix’s rendition of ‘Old Souls’ becomes a ballad that gives the song an emotional edge rather than a sexual slant. ‘Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye’ opens the film and it’s an upbeat doo-wop tribute about a rock star who kills himself so his album sells in order to help out his ill sister. An incredibly strong start for the soundtrack but it never falters afterwards, the songs only get better and better.
De Palma’s Phantom is a wonderfully delirious trip delivered in his trademark 70’s style with loud colours, split screen and crash zooms galore. The zany film is backed up with an incredibly strong soundtrack provided by one of the greatest songwriters of all time, each one as strong as the other. The often sad stereotype of dishonesty in the world of music is exaggerated with voice control and satanic pacts, but also among the flashiness is a glimmer of hope for the struggling artist to come out on top of it all. Certainly one of De Palma’s best and should be mandatory viewing for any fan of cult cinema. Check it out.