This is my entry for The DePalma Blog-a-Thon going on at Cinema Viewfinder which Tony posted this morning.
Phantom of the Paradise is one raw piece of meat. It's a cobbled together piece with mostly unknowns who poorly lip-sync to catchy pop by Paul Williams. And damn if it isn't a beautiful thing. I wouldn't go as far as describing Phantom as a throw away film, but when looking at DePalma's scope of work it comes off like that. A movie that feels like it was made over a weekend with some friends on the thinnest of shoestrings. It's far from perfect, but there's a fuck-it spontaneity about it that makes me want to revisit it over and over again.
The synopsis is familiar if you're familiar with Phantom of the Opera and Faust. Talented artist falls for beautiful singer. Talented artist becomes horribly disfigured. Newly disfigured talented artist declares his love for beautiful singer by writing her a cantata to perform. Devil steals the soul of the now not so newly disfigured talented artist along with the cantata and the beautiful singer, thus making the disfigured talented artist a vengeful monster.
The DePalma usual suspects are here. A scene with the Phantom (William Finley) sabotaging a performance at the Paradise is beautifully choreographed and presented in wonderful split-screen. And of course, there's a nod to Hitchcock involving a shower scene with a plunger as the weapon of choice.
Where Phantom of the Paradise takes a well-thought-out turn is in its commentary of the music industry. To me, its message is decades ahead of its time and it's one that has yet to be topped. The Phantom's slow descent into madness has nothing to do with his talent and everything to do with his "look" or lack thereof. There's a great scene where Swan (Paul Williams) is trying to pick the next new sound and it's not unlike watching an episode of American Idol. Music today is all spectacle with a small side of substance and this message is hit home hardest in the finale where a dying Phantom makes pleas for his life to the audience and is dismissed as just an interesting part of the show. In today's bigger is better world filled with nipple slips and seventeen story screens where everything is expect and nothing is surprising, one wonders how far we are from live sacrifices. And if we saw it, would we greet it with cheers or shrieks?
It's hard to watch Phantom of the Paradise and not think "they sure don't make them like they used to." That's less a statement about quality and more of a statement about trailblazing. About putting stuff out there for people to love or hate, without overthinking if they're going to love or hate it. Phantom feels like an experiment in filmmaking. Not a complete success, nor a complete failure, but a positive step for a filmmaker on his way to a brilliant career.