Saturday, October 6, 2012

Neglected Gem #25: Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

William Finley as the Phantom
Director Brian De Palma has accumulated a long list of neglected gems (The Fury, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Redacted), but the one whose neglect makes the least sense is his ingenious satirical rock musical, Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Fiendishly clever and percolating with film-making fever, De Palma provides ingenious allusions to Phantom of the Opera, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Picture of Dorian Gray. (Last year, while teaching a class on Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, I had more angry responses to this picture than some of De Palma's more inflammatory work.) But this pulsing musical comedy is an exhilarating modern retelling of the Faust myth (with roots in Dante's Divine Comedy) wherein a man becomes so consumed by his thirst for divine knowledge that he sells his soul to the Devil. In Phantom of the Paradise, though, the thirst is for something perhaps a little less lofty: rock immortality.

As a parable, the Faust myth has fascinated a long list of artists from all fields (for maybe the obvious reason that the hunger for immortal acclaim is at its root). The allure of the story inspired Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, which was written as far back as 1591, three years before the author was killed in a street brawl. Mozart also caught the bug in 1775 when he composed his opera Don Giovanni, a Don Juan story that the composer was inspired to turn into a Faustian one. Hector Berlioz composed a colourful dramatic cantata, The Damnation of Faust, but (like De Palma's Phantom) it was greeted with little enthusiasm when it premièred in Paris in 1846. On the other hand, Charles Gounod, whose previous work had gone unnoticed, had his first major success with his opera Faust in 1859. Italian painter and composer Arrigo Boito, who found early fame writing librettos for Verdi's Otello (1886) and Falstaff (1893), turned to Goethe's Faust for higher glory in his opera, Mefistofele (1886). Even modernist composers couldn't resist the seduction of the tale. In Igor Stravinsky's 1918 chamber work, L'Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier's Tale), the Devil (in disguise) offers a soldier an old book filled with wisdom in exchange for his violin. American composer, Frank Zappa, who fell in love with Stravinsky's work as a teenager, reworked L'Histoire du Soldat in 1976 into a wickedly profane and funny oratorio, "Titties 'n' Beer," in which the Devil devours a motorcycle outlaw's girlfriend, plus his case of beer, which he says he'll return in exchange for the biker's soul.

Variations on the Faustian deal inspired many novelists, too, including Thomas Mann, who wrote his version, Dr. Faustus (1947), during the horrors of World War II; Stephen Vincent Benet's 1937 short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (which would become a hit 1941 film); and Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid (1836) which told the Faust story from a female perspective. Faust has also been the source material for musicals (Damn Yankees, The Band Wagon) and other movies (The Devil's Advocate). The only pop musician to tackle the tale head on was Randy Newman with his Faust musical in 1993. While Faust should have been apt material for a songwriter who could turn God into a malevolent comic laughing at the follies of those who pray to him in "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," Newman's Faust was a huge disappointment. Instead of being the defining work of his entire recording career, he made his musical interpretation of the myth too literal, where the targets of his usually sharp satire were made of straw. Newman's Faust was a lethargic piece of craftsmanship with ultimately no soul to sell. 

Harold Oblong, Jeffrey Comanor and Archie Hahn as The Undead
De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, by contrast with Newman, has an imaginative power that links our associations with the legend of Faust to what we've already stored up from popular culture. The film concerns Winslow Leach (William Finley), a composer who is writing a cantata based on Faust, who is robbed of his music by Swan (Paul Williams), an entrepreneur looking for the right music to open his rock palace, the Paradise. We soon discover that Swan is under contract to the Devil in a deal to attain eternal youth, which is why he strongly identifies with Winslow's piece. Swan wants it performed by artists who he thinks have commercial potential. The comically varied bands, all played by the same trio of performers (Harold Oblong, Archie Hahn and Jeffrey Comanor), include The Juicy Fruits, a doo-wop ensemble; The Beach Bums, a surf band; and finally, The Undead, a goth-glam group (complete with KISS-inspired make-up). When Winslow is maimed (hilariously by a record-pressing machine rather than acid), he stalks the Paradise as a masked phantom, killing anyone who performs Faust, except for the singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper), whom he loves.

Paul Williams as Swan
De Palma adapts and integrates Goethe's themes with gutsy imagination and flair into his own Grand Guignol design, daringly setting Faust in the corruptible world of rock, which has had a long history of recording artists selling their souls for a hit. The songs in Phantom (all written by the usually smarmy Paul Williams) are equally smart and witty. The opening track, "Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye," sung by the Juicy Fruits, begins by parodying the melodramatic clichés of West Side Story. But the track also echoes the tragic suicide of Johnny Ace, who killed himself in a game of Russian roulette on Christmas Day in 1954, sending his greatest song, "Pledging My Love," to the top of the charts. "Upholstery," sung by The Beach Bums, is a cheeky re-write of Brian Wilson's "Don't Worry Baby," in which a game of chicken between two guys and their cars now turns into a Faustian bargain over pride. "Somebody Super Like You (Beef Construction Song)," sung by the Undead, is an uproarious parody of Nietzsche's Superman who is reborn as an androgynous Glam God named Beef (neatly invoking David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase, and played by the peerless Gerrit Graham). In this instance, De Palma depicts with shrewd awareness how the audience, cheering on the Undead, wilfully become sacrificial victims to the creation of Beef. But instead of trading their souls, they offer up limbs to their idol in order to give him life. Faustian themes wind like a river through the numerous musical genres De Palma weaves into the narrative.

Jessica Harper as Phoenix
While William Finley is not the most charismatic of performers as Winslow, the actor's angular physical stature wittily matches the highly stylized expressionistic sets. And if Paul William's singing in the song "Faust" can't quite match the poignancy of his lyrics (with their brief allusion to John Lennon's utopian anthem "Come Together"), the urgency in his performance manages to put the song across. Jessica Harper's Phoenix, combining her sweetly innocent eyes with a vixen's curled lips just aching for corruption, is a worthy object of Winslow's (and Swan's) desire, but she also reaches surprising depths of both desire and sorrow in "Old Souls." ("Our paths have crossed and parted/This love affair was started long ago/This love survives the ages/In its story lives are pages/Fill them up/May ours turn slow.") Paul Williams' Swan represents an ambitious bit of casting given the singer/songwriter's role writing sentimental hits for The Carpenters ("We've Only Just Begun") during the Seventies. Throughout the picture, Williams remains mysterious and creepy, a discomfiting personality – drawn from his pop songs and past screen roles – who blends elusively into the part he's playing. Swan's final song, "The Hell of It," is an incriminating piece of work that also invokes our own unresolved feelings about the composer ("Born defeated, died in vain/Super destruction, you were hooked on pain/Tho' your music lingers on/All of us are glad you're gone").

Gerrit Graham as Beef
Phantom of the Paradise, which was released by Twentieth Century Fox, never became the cult classic it deserved to be (it was eclipsed instead by Fox's inferior The Rocky Horror Picture Show which managed to turn high camp into an audience fetish). But Phantom remains a great contemporary Faust musical, one which integrates with bold ambition Goethe's eternal themes of damnation and salvation with our pop obsessions with idols and success. 

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.  


  1. The lyrics "Come together in me now" actually are from "Phantom's Theme" rather than "Faust", and it is sung by Paul Williams (who provides Winslow's synthesized singing voice). William Finley does sing "Faust"("I was not myself last night..."), only in the opening scene and not the reprise in the studio (that's Williams.) Finley also sings the "Never thought I'd get to meet the Devil" snippet.

    Indeed, charismatic would be the wrong word for Finley's Winslow, but he has an awkward, gawky, tragicomic appeal.

  2. I would like to add this: to the author of this article, KISS did not exsist until AFTER Phantom ... came out!! Its clear that KISS got their gimmick from this film!!!'

  3. Kevin to Marty - Sorry, Marty. If you check your dates, you'll find that Kiss was formed in January 1973 in New York City while Phantom of the Paradise came out a year later in January of 1974. While Kiss's first album did come out one month after the release of Phantom (which is maybe why you believe they got the inspiration from the film), they had already been in make-up for a couple of years before their debut LP.