Saturday, September 8, 2012

Phantom of the Paradise

I remember this one from when i was a kid. The Phantom of the Paradise -- not to be confused with Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, a completely different piece of over-the-top 70s rock n' roll cray-cray -- was on late-night TV quite often back when one's selections for late-night viewing were limited indeed. The story is a weird hybrid of Phantom of the Opera and the Faust myth with a bit of The Picture of Dorian Gray, directed by Brian DePalma and starring Paul Williams -- who wrote all of the music -- as a sort of Satan/Phil Spector figure and the villain of the piece.

Paul Williams was the sound of the 70's. He wrote "We've Only Just Begun," "You and Me Against the World," "Evergreen," and many, many more. He wrote most of the songs for The Muppet Movie (yes, "The Rainbow Connection" was his) and did the music for Bugsy Malone, the Scott Baio/Jodie Foster preteen gangster musical that was one of the most mystifying filmic efforts of 1976 and a longtime favorite of mine, as well as one of the most popular children's movies of all time in Britain. (I'll get to it...)
We open with a celebration of the enigmatic writer/singer/producer Swan, with Rod Serling intoning, "He brought the blues to Britain. He brought folk and rock together...." and some ersatz Sha Na Na act doing some kind of faux Shangri-Las teen-death doo-wop number. Then we get the greasy-haired manager bitching about his recalcitrant singer "now she wants to give free concerts for gook orphans." Swan is unconcerned, he's mostly worried about opening the Paradise, a glorious vintage theater and finding the right music for said opening.
Right on time with that new music, our hero, Winston, a nebbish with a bowl cut, nerd glasses and crewneck over a turtleneck, thumps away at a soundstage piano. (How many movies have featured the "discovery" at that practice piano?) Manager tries to get Nebbish's songs, but Nebbish will not part with them, since they're part of his 200-page Faust cantata. Yup.
Nebbish gets the (surprisingly contemporary) brush-off at Swan's Death Records. (Fun Fact: It was originally Swan Song, but Led Zeppelin beat De Palma to the copyright for the label name. Thus, if "Death Records" seems to be awkwardly painted/superimposed onto things, that's because it is.) He heads for Swann's gothic mansion (actually a Texas government building on Dealey Plaza.) and is met by a Babel-like scene of auditioning singers. Of course, the only one singing in tune, shining like an angel on the stairway is Jessica Harper, who you might recognize from Suspiria. She beat out Linda Ronstadt and Sissy Spacek for the part. I'm not sure she should have.
 Anyway, it turns out Tiny Evil Paul Williams has stolen Nebbish's cantata as bait for poontang... oh, and to open the Paradise. Jessica Harper passes on the round waterbed orgy, but Nebbish sneaks in (in drag) and is soon roughed up by security. Shortly thereafter, he is framed for drug dealing, goes to prison, has his teeth replaced with metal dentures, escapes from prison and gets his face melted in a record press (okay, so we finally found a downside to vinyl), thus becoming... The Phantom of the Paradise! This sequence is supposed to be horrifying, but it's so over-the-top one can't help but snicker. I also think there's some overcranking going on.
Of course, the Phantom in his bitchin' new leather n' metal drag goes after Tiny Evil Paul Williams but it only takes Tiny Evil Paul Williams thirty seconds to rip off the Phantom's mask, make him cry and get the him to work rewriting his precious cantata for Tiny Evil Paul Williams. As long as Tiny Evil gets Phoenix to sing the lead. Yeah, once a Nebbish, always a a Nebbish. Throw in some vague promises of possible pussy somewhere down the road and he'll work all kinds of overtime.
The Phantom of the Paradise is at its best when its odd blend of horror, comedy and camp churn together, as when Tiny Evil Paul Williams -- coming off like a cross between Truman Capote and Barry Gibb -- gets the Phantom Nebbish to sign over his soul with a contract the size of a phone book -- "All articles which are excluded will be deemed included." Or when it's sharp musical wit shows, as in the ever-morphing Juicy Fruits/Beach Bums/Undead or the scene where Tiny Evil Paul Williams sits in the middle of his awesome gold record desk and chooses what kind of artist will replace Phoenix, as acts from from folk rock to singer-songwriter to country to R&B to glam rock appear in an unbroken pan. Phantom is not only slick with its genres, but also spoofs the self-indulgence of the 70s rock scene, with suitcases full of pills, limos full of groupies, doped-out stars, money-grubbing businessmen and boot-licking hangers-on.
Our replacement star is Beef, a bizzare prissy-macho glam queen. Gerrit Graham turns in a performance of Walken-level weirdness, from the moment he emerges from his private jet -- in a coffin, wearing a breastplate. There's plenty of during-rehearsal diva-business and microphone twirling and Beef kicks through the musical numbers like David Lee Roth possessed by Dr. Frank N. Furter, cock rock with a limp wrist.
A showertime visit from Phantom Nebbish (best and briefest Psycho parody ever) and Beef is scuttling away in a Santa Claus coat, babbling that "The karma is so thick around here, you need an aqualung to breathe!" Greasy Manager brushes him off, but Beef continues the hysterics: "You just pass the stuff out! I take it! I know drug-real from real-real!"
But, of course, neither we not the Phantom Nebbish will be denied a big finale. I must say, Glen Danzig and Jerry Only must be furious that someone got to this staging first, for Faust opens on a Caligari-inspired set with naughty undead nurses, audience mock-dismemberment, pyrotechnics and Frankenstein. (I must admit that this is where i get a little confused. So, Beef the glam-rocker took Phoenix's role in the Faust cantata. So she was supposed to play Frankenstein? I don't get it... I mean, i really like the idea, but i'm not sure how it would work. If the idea is that she was supposed to be the Gretchen/Marguerite figure to begin with, then why the problem with having someone play Faust? Or is Frankenstein the Devil?
The Phantom of the Paradise has developed its own fanatical cult over time -- like most cult flicks, it flopped on arrival, expect in Winnepeg, Canada, where it ran for almost two straight years. There's been a variety of Rocky Horror-style audience participation screenings, stage productions, a possible remake. And it really is a solid, watchable film, if a bit eccentric and on the higher-end of DePalma's work. Sure, it's no Scarface or Carrie, but it sure as hell ain't Bonfire of the Vanities or Mission to Mars or The Black Dahlia either.

No comments:

Post a Comment