Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Phantom of the Paradise, Director Brian DePalma (1974)

Here at The Paradise we offer you a special blend of fantasy and fact. Atrocity and art. Music and murder twice nightly. And is the horror you witness mere theatrics, or is it real? The only way to be sure…is to participate. At The Paradise our performers are contracted to entertain you at any cost! And entertain you they will. Trust me…” Swan
Winslow discusses his musical with Phoenix.
Meet Winslow Leach—a bug-eyed, left-over hippie who can write the most perfect music that ever existed. But being an archetypal underdog and stereotypical  victim, it comes as no surprise when the dweeby musician’s cantata is stolen by the sinister Swan (played by the film’s composer, Paul Williams), a music producer of great renown who appears to be the devil incarnate. After a series of severe betrayals, accidents, and torments at the hands of Swan, Winslow is left with his face horribly disfigured, a growling, ruined voice, and a jaw full of iron molars, canines, and bicuspids. He has lost his music, he has lost his voice, and as a final blow he meets his true love, the rich-voiced Phoenix, only to have her swept away from him by the wave of fame Swan provides her. Winslow, now unable to sing the perfect music he composed, desires nothing more than for Phoenix to sing his cantata in his stead, vowing that “anyone else who tries, dies.”  He comes to terrorize Swan’s hotel called Paradise, destroying those who would mar his work with anything less than the perfection of Phoenix’s voice. 

Phantom of the Paradise is a dark comedy and musical much like Rocky Horror Picture Show, but for inexplicable reasons it remains far more obscure. Many of the songs contained in the film are parodies of various musical genres and styles popular during the 1970s, and the film’s plot and characters play off of the stories of The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Faust, and Frankenstein. Major themes in the film are the corruption of fame, specifically within the music industry, the danger of obsessive love (or obsession in general), and the evils of pride and the pursuit of perfection. However, the themes I find most prevalent in the film are the role of the artist in modern society, and how modern society views the artist.

Winslow, our pitiful protagonist, represents the Artist in society. He is depicted as a sentimental dreamer with a very dark, wrathful side to him—as illustrated by his tantrum at the film’s start when it is suggested someone other than him sing his best song, Faust. From this dark side of him stems his music, his obsession for perfection (an obsession he shares with Swan), and the thirst for revenge he acquires that causes him to become the Phantom. (Who but a TRUE artist would don the guise of what appears to be a gothy, metallic vampire-owl in order to reap his revenge?) 

The antagonist, Swan, on the other hand, is a producer who does not create music, but who lives off of and exploits the talents of others, throwing them, their careers, and sometimes their lives, away when he is finished with them. He also has the peculiar habit of requiring his musicians to sign their contracts for life and in blood. Furthermore, he will stoop to any level of decadence to put on a good show, and it is often ambiguous whether the human sacrifices and murders occurring on stage are mere theatrics or quite real. (As he says, the only way for the audience to be certain is to participate.) Swan represents how the materialism of the powerful entertainment industry cheats artists out of their work, and how the enterprise suffocates true art and beauty while elevating manufactured, shallow music for the masses’ consumption—music that speaks to the baser levels of humanity, rather than more sensitive songs like the ones Winslow composes. 

Performers for the song Somebody Super Like You.
However, Winslow, representing true artists, is continuously abused, used, and taken for granted. Swan’s music-manufacturing machine, Death Records, chews him up and spits him out—even steals his soul. As the Phantom, however, Winslow never ceases challenging the status quo, pursuing perfection through combining his songs with his true love’s voice. This mirrors the struggle of many great artists—the struggle to find beauty, and somehow meaning, in the face of opposition or a depressing existence.

(End spoiler warning for the next two paragraphs.) How society chooses to remember Winslow following his death is also representative of how the artist is viewed by society today. The opening song, Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye, claims that musicians who suffer tragic, premature deaths are held particularly close to society’s heart, and are even viewed as martyrs of a generation. Conversely, the lyrics of the film’s concluding song, Hell of It, which plays during the credits, suggests that while society places its greatest artists upon pedestals during their prime, artists within our civilization are actually despised and seen as leeches or parasites (making Winslow Leach’s last name ironic). The song suggests humanity loves to see its idols fall from grace. But why? Is it because the artist’s decline—their loss of favor and beauty in the eyes of fans—is somehow their greatest masterpiece, moving people in a way their original rise to greatness did not? Or perhaps the masses enjoy seeing the artist humbled—brought low into the mundane existence society imposes.

Of course the concluding song’s portrayal of society’s artists, though highly insulting, is not wholly unfair to the movie’s characters. (Although the justice of the song, if applied to all artists in general, may be more debatable.) The lyrics of Hell of It—which, while relevant to all of the movie’s main cast, fit Winslow best—are sadly accurate when describing the Phantom as “super destructive, you were hooked on pain.” After all, Winslow as the Phantom is the image of twisted creativity, and he claims the role of a murderer. Winslow is also aptly described in the song as “born defeated,” and “died in vain.” This raises the question of whether the sad, worthless state of Winslow at the film’s close is the portrait of every artist, or if it is only the fate society imposes upon its artists. Phantom of the Paradise is an excellent—and painfully frank—exploration of this very issue. 

Of course the true reason Phantom of the Paradise still holds such a dedicated following is not for its existential messages, but for its truly amazing soundtrack. Paul Williams’ songs for this movie are often labeled as “new age rock,” and they are almost always described as being “ahead of their time.” Williams, who spent most of his career preceding the film composing easy-listening music for such groups as The Carpenters, dove into completely new territory with his spooky rock opera—strange and wonderful territory he never truly left, as he later went on to involve himself with such projects as The Muppets. Williams sings three songs on the movie’s album—more than any other artist involved. His songs include Phantom’s Theme, the second version of Faust, and, of course, Hell of It. 

I recommend this movie to musical fans, dark comedy fans, horror fans, and all fans of the bizarre—Phantom of the Paradise is truly the cult film all the other cult films want to be. Possessing a faultless soundtrack, a timeless theme, and unforgettable characters, it is my hope the rock opera will continue to circulate among cult film enthusiasts for generations to come.

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