30 for 30: Phantom of the Paradise

Richard Petro

twitter @ThePetroProject

October 07th, 2019

"I know drug real from real-real!"

     In 1972, Brian De Palma directed Sisters to a decent amount of acclaim that marked the film as a good little homage to the films of Alfred Hitchcock whilst still slowly building the essentials of what would become trademarks of the director. Before he went on reach full success with the likes of Carrie, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill and Scarface from 1976 on, he made a little film in 1974 that mixed various stories and married them with his style, also teaming up with a songwriter who himself had been experiencing early success named Paul Williams. That movie was, of course, the topic of today.

     Loosely mixing together Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, Goethe's Faust and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Phantom of the Paradise follows a songriter/composer by the name of Winslow Leach (William FInley), who auditions for the upcoming opening of a luxurious nightclub/concert hall with his ongoing life's work re-telling Faust. The club belongs to the incredibly acclaimed producer Swan (Paul Williams), who takes a liking to the work but not Leach himself. As things like this generally go (not well), next thing you know Leach is imprisoned, then scarred, before returning to exact revenge. His ideas of revenge are thrown by a sudden proposal, to work together to complete Leach's work in exchange to having his work be performed by Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a young singer with big dreams that Leach had previously met and fallen for. Again, as things like these go, slight complications occur along the way.

     To say Phantom of the Paradise is a blast would be an understatement. It begins by throwing you right into its world, presenting you exactly with what to expect from the rest of its runtime. While De Palma has always been known for his style, it feels to be at a dizzying high here; reaching a natural energetic level that never seems to let up. The design work, from the sets to the costumes, is wonderful (with a special shout-out to the absolutely brilliant Phantom costume, which I could gush about for ages). The cinematography by Larry Pizar has always stood out for me here, going far in pushing the film slightly against the boundaries of reality. It feels like the operatic fantasy/fairy tale that it deserves to be whilst still grounding it in the real world.

     The characters are just as colourful as the sets, and the fact that they are just as memorable as the visuals are the most important factors in making the film stand and work as much as it does. William Finley, a past collaborator of De Palma's, is the most important force here, and his work is impeccable. He very easily portrays Leach as a lovable loser in the beginning, someone you can't help but feel for and want to see succeed, though it's obvious in any real scenario that he unfortunately won't. While there's a sprinkle here and there that shows off the underlying anger he has in terms of his passion for his work, he fully makes the idea of The Phantom work in regards to how Leach would lash out. He has nothing left to lose, and his moments of sheer manic energy (and amazing, whole hearted screeching laughter) is brilliantly realized, though Finley never loses the true humanity of the man that he previously was.
     Jessica Harper shows up on the list once again as Leach's love interest Phoenix. She doesn't have a whole lot to do, definitely not as much of an exploration of her character as what is supposed to be her novel counterpart, but Harper is still good in her role, however limited to true character depth there may be. She brings with her a level of innocence and naivete that works in what Phoenix goes through, making it believable that she would fall for the seduction of fame and riches, especially with Swan there stoking the fires.

     Speaking of Swan, the idea of anyone else but Paul Williams playing him seems ridiculous. Williams, looking up at Winslow from his 5' 2" frame, makes for one intimidating presence. He speaks eloquently, is extremely intelligent, and is masterful at how he manipulates those around him. He exudes confidence, with his mysterious side still predmoninantly dominating the film underneath it all. He is a great villain, and one who deserves to be better known and enjoyed.
     Then there's Gerrit Graham. I've been relatively vague about how the story plays out, even if it may be obvious in certain places it's all about the journey, and I'm going to do the same here in regards to Graham's character. Graham is fantastic here, creating a character that walks away with the movie and ends up being so enjoyable (and so quoted by those who love the film), that it's always shocking for me to rewatch it and realize that he isn't in it as much as I always remember. He's worth seeing the movie alone.

     There's a lot I absolutely adore about the movie, and while the acting, design, directing, and cinematography marry each other beautifully to create this fun experience, I had to save the best for last. The music that Paul Williams wrote is amongst my top favourite soundtracks for the film. It covers a wide variety of styles, all fully realized and never feeling out of place, while also injecting the film with a new level of energy and excitement. Pretty much every song is incredibly catchy, and it's one of the few cases where it might end up being really hard for anyone to choose their favourite any given day. I could have written this entire thing just praising the music work here, it's exceptional.

     I got to see Phantom of the Paradise in theaters last year, and seeing it on a big screen was an absolute joy, one of the most fun experiences I've had in a theater. I've been lucky enough to get the chance to introduce multiple people to it and they've all immediately taken to it, and that alone makes me happy. It's a film that has attained quite a cult following over the decades after initially failing, but it deserves to be seen by more. It's a great experience, with many different things coming together to make a great blast of a time. To watch Phantom of the Paradise is to have a movie that almost guarantees itself a spot on your favourites list.

     Long live Beef.