Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

One would think a film written and directed by Brian De Palma would receive some recognition. It did, in fact - it was a main stay in French and Canadian theaters for months after its premiere in 1974. Domestic movie patrons, however, missed out on the rock musical starring none other than '60s and '70s songwriting giant Paul Williams. With its over-the-top production values, the movie rivals Rocky Horror Picture Show as one of the most innovative and entertaining spectacles in its genre.

Trailer for Phantom of the Paradise

The story extrapolates elements from at least five different texts, among them "Faust," "Frankenstein," "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and, of course, "The Phantom of the Opera." An egomaniacal music mogul named Swan sells his soul for eternal youth and limitless power, but not without ruining some lives in the process. One life he destroys is that of songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley), an optimistic up-and-comer with a talent for ballads. After a series of events leaves him penniless and deformed, Leach dons a silver helmet and cape to haunt Swan's rock club, The Paradise. Jessica Harper turns in a notable performance as Leach's beautiful muse Phoenix, while Gerrit Graham steals scene after scene as a the spoiled glam rocker Beef.

A send-up of the music industry during that time, the movie coasts along on songs and performances mocking everything from hollow shock rock - which was gaining popularity with new acts like Alice Cooper - to the commercialization of artists. Phantom delivers with all the subtlety of a drunk drag queen, pulling out archetypal characters, shiny costumes and musical numbers so schmaltzy they make Cats look like high art. De Palma fans will recognize the voyeuristic camera angles and use of space familiar with the director's work. Music fans will appreciate that the same man who wrote "Rainbow Connection" also composed the songs for this crazy rock n' roll fever dream.

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