Today! Because I was not myself last night/Couldn’t set things right with apologies or flowers –
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Directed by Brian De Palma (x3)
Starring William Finley, Paul Williams (x2), Jessica Harper (x2), Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli, Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, Peter Elbling
Despite being a lifelong Paul Williams fan – who lands fully three musicals in my top 100, er, 77 films – Phantom of the Paradise didn’t get onto my radar for a very long time. In fact, and in fairness, it probably shouldn’t have even been eligible for this list, as I only first saw it a few years ago, almost certainly since the release cut-off date I used for new movies. But I’m exploiting the loophole wherein that rule only applies to new movies, not when I first saw them, plus it’s my list, and who gives a shit? So welcome to the countdown, Winslow!
I have no good sense of what Phantom of the Paradise‘s place is in the world. I don’t remember ever hearing of it before I saw it – I’m pretty dismissive of De Palma films, even if this is his third appearance on this list – but the fact that this is a full blown Williams musical is more surprising it didn’t come up at some point. And I mean, it is pretty bizarro stuff. This Phantom of the Opera/Faust mash-up, updated for the ’70s, is part parody to be sure, but also part horror movie, as a lot of the goings on are played very seriously, after a point. Plus again, there are like ten songs, which don’t always perfectly fit with the plot or the film in general, as they vary from total Broadway to surf rock, and it’s kind of a low budget affair. So I get the feeling this movie is way off in the cult realm, if anywhere.
But the songs! Given the variety of genres, the quality naturally is going to be a little uneven, but the highs are extraordinary – “Faust,” “Special to Me,” and “The Hell of It” give each of the leads a terrific showcase, the more rock-opera-esque “Life at Last” and “Somebody Super Like You” are feeling a little dated, but aren’t bad songs, and the Beach Boys-lite anthems “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye” and “Upholstery” are a lot of fun. Does it add up to a great musical? Probably not – there is very little cohesion to all these tunes – but it sure turns out an incredibly fun movie.
Oh, so, it does occur to me when I first saw the title for this – that I definitively recall, anyway. In the documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”, about Tim Burton/Kevin Smith’s abortive efforts to get a Superman movie together in the ’90s, the interviewer/director of the doc Jon Schnepp is at one point wearing a Phantom of the Paradise t-shirt (let’s see if the Google can prove this…).
A few years back, I dragged the wife to L.A. for one day (no mean feat from Chicago) to see The Muppets Take the Bowl at the Hollywood Bowl – as the Muppets virtually never do live shows – and it was totally worth it. They’ve since done a version of this production in London, but we can only hope a full tour is imminent. Anyway, during “The Rainbow Connection” finale, lo and behold, out steps Paul Williams himself, author of the song and bringer of joy to the masses. It was as glorious a surprise celebrity appearance as I’ve ever been present for.
For a guy I rundown every chance I get, Brian De Palma sure ended up with a lot of love on this list. He becomes the 31st directing Three-Timer, following #354 The Untouchables and #392 Mission: Impossible, despite also being behind the camera for the likes of Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars, Snake Eyes, and Femme Fatale. You know what, I should lay off De Palma. He was pretty decent for a while. Composer Williams joins the acting Two-Timers, after his role in #273 The Cheap Detective, alongside Jessica Harper, who appeared in #107 Love and Death two years after Phantom. Spotlight!