The tone of Brian De Palma’s 1974 unclassifiable Phantom of the Paradise is established in its very first sequence, a nifty bit of introductory narration from The Twilight Zone auteur Rod Serling. Serling might not seem like a logical fit for rock opera that combines too many cinematic and literary inspirations to efficiently enumerate (although, word of warning, I am going to try), at least not on paper, but Paradise doesn’t exist on paper and it’s kind of hard to believe it ever did. But seeing it on the screen, you realize that De Palma has taken everything from The Twilight Zone to Faust, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Alice Cooper, Italian giallo, American comic books, and the Beach Boys into one massive, hallucinogenic cinematic stew.
The first song in Phantom of the Paradise, like all of Paul Williams’s music for the film, strikes a delicate, almost impossible balance between straightforward pop and vicious satire. The song’s name is “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye*, a spot-on parody of pop music’s most morbid impulses towards romanticizing youthful, untimely death. We’re only a comb’s tooth or two away from “Last Kiss” here, but it makes all the difference; the lyrics are about a guy named Eddie, who realizes that the only way he can afford to pay for his sister’s life-saving operation is to become a posthumous rock phenom, so he takes his own life to ensure the success of his music and so his sister can live. That’s all well and good for a three-minute tearjerker, but demonic record executive Swan (played by Williams) doesn’t want to die for his music — at least not right away.
Phantom of the Paradise is just one of many so-called rock operas to have been produced over the last several decades, both for the stage and the screen, but it’s possibly the only one to use the concept with so much fluidity and satirical insight. In the world of Paradise commercialism is a death cult governed by supernatural contracts signed in blood, rock and roll is its rhythmic, irresistible chant, and fame the blessed afterlife promised to its most devoted adherents. The best way to get famous is to die, so it’s probably best to figure out a way to keep working afterwards.
For Swan, that means signing a deal with the devil that gives him eternal youth (a quintessentially rock-and-roll concept in itself) in exchange for his immortal soul. That eternal youth also saddles him with an equally eternal nostalgia, and he finds great success in the music business capitalizing on that universal impulse. But when he hears the “pop cantata” of a young starving songwriter by the name of Winslow Leach (William Finley, in his only leading role, for some reason), he believes he’s hearing the sound of the future. This being a gothic tragedy, he conspires to steal and commercialize Leach’s music out from under him, eventually framing him on bogus drug charges to get him out of the way. In one of the film’s many macabre touches, Swan even arranges for Leach to have his teeth removed as part of an experimental procedure while he’s in prison, replacing them with shiny metal ones instead. Why? That’s not totally clear, but it pays big visual dividends later once Leach busts out of prison and ends up with his face crushed by an errant record press, disfiguring him further and transforming him into … The Phantom of the Paradise.
Gaston Leroux’s classic thriller The Phantom of the Opera has to be one of the most adapted pieces of literature ever written. Lerou’x Erik haunts the Palais Garnier in search of the perfect voice to complete his magnum opus, but Leach haunts the Paradise, Swan’s decadent new age rock club that specializes in giving the people exactly what they want, even when it involves murdering a performer onstage. One of the little ironies of Phantom of the Paradise is the way that the Phantom’s rampages don’t seem to disrupt the Paradise’s business at all, and if anything his murders only serve to enhance the club’s popularity and mystique. Like all great entertainment executives, Swan wins no matter what you do.
Adapting The Phantom of the Opera for a rock milieu wasn’t exactly a commercial jackpot back in 1974, although Andrew Lloyd Webber had a lot of success with it a decade or so later. Instead, De Palma’s film was received mostly by indifferent audiences (except in Winnipeg, where the film was inexplicably an adored midnight movie smash from the very beginning). But its influence is stark — I don’t know if Webber ever saw this movie but I know Daft Punk did, and you can see a clear visual line between Leach’s black leather/silver helmet combo and the preferred uniforms of those musical French robots. And of course the connection was strengthened even more when Daft Punk enlisted the participation of Paul Williams for their 2013 album Random Access Memories.
I might be stretching a bit here, but there’s another even more famous black-cloaked metal man with respiratory issues that seems to me to be clearly inspired by De Palma’s Phantom. Does the Phantom’s recording studio, deep in the sinister heart of Swan Records HQ, where he writes and writes surrounded by futuristic and science-fictional recording equipment, really look that different from Darth Vader’s meditation chamber as seen in The Empire Strikes Back? And can that possibly be a coincidence?
Every Phantom of the Opera riff needs a Christine Daaé, and Paradise has a great one in Jessica Harper. This was her first movie and kicked off an incredible career of strange Hollywood projects, including a couple more off-kilter musicals: Shock Treatment (a sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in my mind the Jim Morrison to Phantom of the Paradise’s Lou Reed) and Pennies from Heaven. She’s fantastic in the role of Phoenix, the naive ingenue with the haunting voice and the weird, herky-jerky dance moves, and her performance made her a psychotronic star years before Suspiria.
While I’m singling out members of the cast, I’d be remiss not to mention Gerrit Graham as Beef, a kind of over-the-top camp parody of hypermacho rock star swagger. Beef is a one-of-a-kind character who probably deserved his own movie, and he even gets to be the center of one of Brian De Palma’s earliest Hitchcock lifts, a parody of Psycho shower scene that Mel Brooks probably wished he’d been able to use for his own Hitchcock homage High Anxiety three years later.
De Palma’s Hitchcock parody is surpassed in visual elaboration by his homage to Orson Welles, specifically the famous bomb-in-the-car opening of Touch of Evil, which is recaptured here (in split screen, no less) when the Phantom places his own ticking time bomb in the trunk of a stage prop convertible for a faux Beach Boys number.
As you can see, it’s hard to talk about Phantom of the Paradise without falling down a pop-cultural wormhole of inspirations, allusions, ripoffs, and homages, flowing in both directions. It feels akin to stuff like the Indiana Jones, Star Wars, or Kill Bill movies, in which creatively assured filmmakers throw too many of their own influences and loves to count into their overstuffed fantasies. The difference, of course, is that those films were all massive, culture-defining successes while Phantom of the Paradise only reached a tiny fraction of their audiences.
Even now, the ubiquity of other so-called cult movies has mostly escaped Paradise, even as De Palma went on to make some of the most perennially popular films ever made in Hollywood, like Scarface or Mission: Impossible. But there’s something special about Phantom of the Paradise that makes it still seem possible that some future mega-popularity might be granted it, even if it never actually happens.
Whatever commercial disappointment Phantom of the Paradise might have represented, its satirical targets remain on point almost 50 years later. Endless nostalgia and repackaging is now something more associated with the film and TV industries than the music business, but the basic idea, to sell people’s own memories back to them, forever, is a concept that will probably always be relevant and is subtly, almost effortlessly skewered here. Nostalgia is Swan’s business model, the reason for his success, and a manifestation of his own immortality. Even the ageless want to be young again — how else do you explain rock and roll?