Welcome back to Movie Mondays, my semi-regular feature where I write about movies I haven’t seen before (no matter how old). This week, I have some things to say about a movie that has been around for a while, is apparently a cult classic by a well-known filmmaker, and I only even heard about it for the first time recently. If you follow me on Twitter, you will of course know my new obsession that is The Phantom of the Paradise.
A little personal history to preface my reaction to discovering this movie. Particularly when I was in high school and college, I was a big theatre nerd and movie buff. My teen years were spent listening to every Broadway show soundtrack on the planet–Les Mis, Chess, The Who’s Tommy, J.C. Superstar, Miss Saigon, Rent, and yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. By the time I got to college, I consumed every film imaginable, and because I went to NYU Film School, they became increasingly niche and admittedly pretentious. Also because of NYU, I hung out with a group of film school friends (it wouldn’t be wrong to call them “bros”) that was collectively obsessed with Brian De Palma. We marathoned Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double. We even went to see Snake Eyes opening night. Snake. Eyes.
However, as much as my so-called friends loved to explain how his latter day blockbusters like The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible paled in comparison to the genius of Sisters, they never bothered to clue me, the unashamed musical theatre nerd of the group, into De Palma’s glam rock version of Phantom. I will never forgive them for this (I mean, we never talk anymore anyway, but… ¯\ (ツ)/¯ ).
Fast forward two decades, I’m tumbling down the YouTube rabbit hole, and I came across Lindsay Ellis’s essay on the many adaptations of Phantom of the Opera. Lo and behold, Phantom of the Paradise entered my life.
Now, I expected a campy, dated, 70’s, poor man’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, and well I may have gotten some of those, but I got so much more. While Phantom of the Paradise doesn’t have the 4th wall breaking audience participation songs of Rocky Horror, its songs (written by the great Paul Williams, who also plays the film’s antagonist, Swan) are still instantly catchy and span in style as Swan changes his hit maker band from The Juicy Fruits (oldies rock & roll) to The Beach Bums (surfer rock) to The Undeads (glam/proto-stadium rock). Which brings us to the unsung hero in this and many other films, Gerrit Graham.
I’ll get back to the actual hero of the film William Finley (who plays the titular Phantom), in a minutes, but let’s take a minute to talk about how great and underappreciated Gerrit Graham is, again, by going back to my NYU film school days. Now, Graham is one of those great working actors you’ve seen in a million things but probably never remembered his name beyond, “Oh yeah that guy.” I remember him, of all his rolls as “Bud the Chud” from C.H.U.D. II, which I only know as well as I do because it was directed by one of my NYU professors, David Irving, and he took every possible opportunity to show it to us, which was actually helpful if for no other reason than showing us ambitious, arrogant, uncompromising film students what could technically be accomplished on such a small budget. But beyond that, Graham fully committed to playing that damn Chud. Graham fully commits to every single roll I’ve recognized in him since, now matter how small, whether it’s one scene opposite young Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life or as a defecting member of the immortal race Q in Star Trek: Voyager or (and my personal favorite) as Kurt Russell’s luck obsessed partner in Used Cars, which includes a scene of him stumbling out on to a highway and coming inches from getting his by a car! Yeah, Gerrit Graham is a superstar. Please cast him in more stuff, Hollywood.
Anyway, Gerrit plays (questionably stereotypical) effeminate singer whose on stage persona is the manly metal rock singer Beef. Beef is the guy whom Swan–who has stolen composer Winslow Leach’s songs which were in turn meant for ingénue Phoenix—to perform and make hit songs of, thus incurring Winslow’s wrath. Oh yeah, Winslow is the Phantom, did I mention that? Anyway, Gerrit sells both parts of his persona fully, including in a sendup of the Psycho shower scene.
So, the plot itself is actually equal parts Phantom of the Opera and Foust. As the story goes, Swan is opening a new club and needs a hot band with hot songs to open it. He discovers Winslow, played by William Finley, who is no great looker or singer (despite his singing voice actually being that of Paul Williams), but Swan recognizes Winslow’s songs as genius. They are based on the story of Faust after all. Swan steals Winslow’s songs and frames Winslow for drug related crimes and has him sent to Sing Sing, where Winslow is then forced to participate in a program that replaces his real teeth with metal teeth, for reasons that are never explains beyond because it’ll look cool in the movie. Winslow escapes prison, breaks into Swan’s record press to attempt to stop him reproducing his songs, but gets stuck in the press and becomes disfigured. Here is where Winslow dons a cool chrome bird mask and becomes the Phantom of the Paradise. The Paradise being Swan’s club. Swan discovers Winslow and makes him a Faustian deal (in blood!) to get Winslow to finish his rock opera (which again is about Faust) on the condition that Swan has Phoenix (Jessica Harper) whom Winslow is in love with, sing the songs. Swan hires Beef instead. Winslow, as the Phantom, terrorizes the Paradise. The rest of the story pretty much writes itself…
Until it doesn’t and we come to find that Swan himself made a Faustian deal with the ACTUAL DEVIL when he was young to keep his fame and fortune as a recording artist going while staying eternally young. Oh yeah, this film also references The Picture of Dorian Grey, but the picture in question is the library of video cassettes Swan has from the constantly recording cameras around his estate.
Is all of that wackadoo enough for you? Because yeah, this movie is wackadoo, and genius. The story is weird and crazy enough, and it’s early Brian De Palma when he was trying (and ripping off) everything he could. The music really puts it over the top and elevates it to the cult classic status that it deserves.
Also, I think it’s one of De Palma’s best movies. It sadly bombed at the box office, though it apparently played at one theatre in Winnipeg for a year, which helped it gain its cult status. And then De Palma made Carrie and a bunch of Hickcockian thrillers, and he never made a musical again. But dang, do I wish he made another musical. Love or hate his oeuvre, he certainly has a command of cinematic language through camera work and editing that is perfect for musicals.
Till then, I’ll always have the wackadoo 70’s glam rock fantasy that is The Phantom of the Paradise.