PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, Brian De Palma’s 1974 movie, has a special place in my heart – and in the hearts of only a select few others, as we shall soon see. Back when I was writing about rock music, my very first transcontinental record-company junket took me to Los Angeles, also a first for me. There, during my three-or-four-day visit, I interviewed the Hudson Brothers and their showrunner Chris Bearde at the fabled “Television City in Hollywood,” talked to and dined with Neil Bogart at his Casablanca Records office on Sherbourne Drive just off the Sunset Strip and a nifty little disk-biz bistro called Lost On Larrabee, partook of an American smoking mixture from a huge Hefty bag proffered by Casablancan Larry Harris back on Sherbourne, learned how to play backgammon, and actually attended one of those weird Hollywood parties you see in movies. At mine, one pontificator who claimed he was a “script doctor” and seemed falsely modest about his contributions to famous flick after famous flick had this rapt audience of dropped jaws, but I couldn’t call bullshit on him because culturally I might as well have been in Latvia: he could have been the scriptus emeritus for all I — “Tom’s with Rolling Stone down South” — knew. However, it’s a further activity on that trip which brings me back to our subject, which I still consider De Palma’s finest film.
My hostess, a music publicist, had arranged for us to see a very early screening on the 20th Century-Fox lot, but only a rough assembly, so I had to promise (in writing) not to write about it until the finished flick was released later in the year. There were only three in the audience: yhos, my hostess, and Charles Champlin, the chief film critic for the Los Angeles Times, who sat right next to me.
You might have been tempted to say, “loved THE GOLD RUSH, Mr. Chaplin, huh huh huh,” but I’d just been through a graduate-level curriculum in Radio/TV/Film, had not quite yet defended a thesis on Fifties monster movies that I’d written in spurts while tearing myself away from the televised Watergate hearings, and had been introduced to meaningful world cinema by an early-Seventies PBS series called FILM CLASSICS. It mined the storied Janus Films vault and screened these brilliant works of art as the distributor insisted: uncut, uninterrupted, undubbed. It was a film school on your television set. And this luminous series was hosted by none other than, let’s see if I can remember, oh yeah, Charles frickin Champlin.
At first I was just frozen, as you would be if Bill Clinton plopped down next to you at the multiplex. Yes, this was a screening room, yes, they did have quarter-cut sammidges for refreshment, yes, there was a tiny gooseneck light to help you take notes without disturbing the next film critic, but damn! Trust me, in the early Seventies Champlin was the tv face of movies, the Roger Ebert of his time, but for cineastic snobs he was even better: he was a fine-flick-crittin STAR! I stammered out something. My memory is, whatever I managed was inadequate. But “Chuck” – he was hot shit in this room, knew the projectionist by name, surely I was just piggybacking on a screening he’d already set up – shook my hand and then waved for the feature, tout de suite. We did not speak afterward except to say goodbye. But by then my face had already melted off by what we’d been summoned there to watch: De Palma’s movie.
The assembly we saw was raw, but it did begin with a two-minute opening narration by Rod Serling, the first thing we heard after the Fox fanfare. For some reason Serling’s uncredited voiceover was excised from most of the versions I saw on pay-tv or cassette over the years; it was recently restored for the DVD re-release, and now Shout Factory has presented a Blu-Ray edition that can make you a PHANTOManiac. I will pause while you purchase and watch this gem.
In case you didn’t, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is a musical satire about Seventies excess that mashes up FAUST, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. You know, the obscure one that doesn’t feature a character named Rocky Horror. Composer Winslow Leach (William Finley) has written a masterful cantata, but his music is stolen by Swan, a ruthless, powerful record exec (played by Paul Williams, who also wrote the movie’s great original songs) even more sinister than Phil Spector, on whom the character is evidently modeled. There’s a cute chanteuse (Jessica Harper, in her first movie) who’s born to sing Winslow’s work, but the evil Swan goes commersh instead and hires a glam-rock shrieker named Beef (Gerrit Graham in a show-stealing part). Meantime, Winslow has had his face mangled in a record press, so he wears a mask and cape that he steals from Wardrobe and skulks around a la Lon Chaney, determined to sabotage Swan’s artistic sacrilege. The funny yet plausible songs range from doo-wop to beach to piano ballad to metal (performed by an ever-morphing Greek-chorus of two guys from National Lampoon’s LEMMINGS and their pal), as Williams sheds the MOR roots that made him famous. And the whole clambake is built by the brilliant Jack Fisk, lit by the brilliant Larry Pizer, and staged by the brilliant Brian De Palma. It is a hoot and a half, and hasn’t lost its power to dazzle in forty years.
It had a rough start. In script form, this project was called PHANTOM OF THE FILLMORE, but Bill Graham didn’t like some of the stuff that would have happened in his putative theater, so he declined permission. The producers shortened it to PHANTOM, actually did opticals using that title, and then heard sternly from whoever owned Lee Falk’s old comic strip character. So, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. But wait, there’s more. Universal Pictures decided that the project trod upon its character the Phantom of the Opera (laughable, sure, U almost certainly would have lost a lawsuit, but in order to release their film the producers still had to settle), and finally, adding insult to injury, Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant sued over the pic’s use of the “Swan Song” record label, even though Zep had founded its identically named label after principal photography had wrapped. But Grant prevailed – he held a legit trademark, whether coincidental or not – forcing the filmmakers to optically remove each prominent representation of the words “Swan Song,” on which De Palma had based his narrative. There was to be a continuing visual motif that would introduce each scene by pulling back from a Swan Song logo – see, Swan was everywhere – but due to Zep’s lawsuit it was abandoned for release (you can compare one instance on the new Blu-Ray extras). For the rest of the movie, these horrible shimmering mattes obscure the Swan Song name and change it to “Death Records” (this is pre-CGI, remember). They’re ugly even to me; those mattes must absolutely break the hearts of the filmmakers. So it’s amazing that you can overlook these obvious warts – the poor schnooks were in trouble even before their frickin title sequence was done – and settle back for a wild and wooly ride full of enough visual information to overpower any amount of ragged retro-fitting.
You think I’m some crazy outlier, the Cliven Bundy of cult movie fans? Well, you could be right. It sure looked that way after I came back from L.A. and told all my friends about this groovy new pic I’d just seen. A few months later, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE became a King Kong-sized bomb, one of the worst disasters in movie then-history. Nobody went to see it, mate; it’s almost as if they got together beforehand and decided to cross their arms en masse, like those Pubs did on Inauguration Day 2009. I don’t think PHANTOM even played in Athens, Georgia, where I lived, but in Atlanta it was being openly sneered at by some of my friends, including a guy who’d managed a group that had lowered the bar for the venerable Columbia Records by selling the fewest number of double-Lp units in this storied label’s history. Even he — maybe especially he — could smell an overripe turkey.
But it wasn’t a turkey, goddammit! Music plus horror plus comedy plus insane gonzo visuals just formed a combo that was simply too hip for the room. All except for two cities, and guess which ones they were? Winnipeg. And Paris. PHANTOM created its own cult, and imaginative kids who grew up in the day doted on it. Guillermo del Toro is a HUGE fan and invited Paul Williams to help score PAN’S LABYRINTH because of it. The deux hommes in Daft Punk told Paul they’ve probably seen the flick twenty times. And most important, after all this time seeing the picture again after all this frickin time, it still works as the product of a group of young mad scientists who couldn’t believe someone had given them the world’s best train set to play with. Huzzah to De Palma and his whole gang for PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. Never will we see its like again.
11/19/14: Less than three months after I wrote this piece came the sad news that Charles Champlin has passed away at 88. As an expert on film and populist for the art form, he belongs up there with Roger Ebert.
12/31/17: That Casablancan referenced in the first graf, Larry Harris, a great guy, has just left us.