Before unleashing his heavy artillery, future American auteur Brian De Palma fired a shot across the bow of the music world with his rock-horror Phantom of the Paradise.
A re-imagining of Faust, disfigured composer Winslow (William Finley) sells his soul to music mogul Swan (Paul Williams), under the provision that Phoenix (Jessica Harper) will be the voice of his music.
In the rock palace The Paradise, love, betrayal and art collide with spectacular force as Winslow learns the cost of bargaining with the Devil.
The same year as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II and Scorsese’s formative gangster film Mean Streets, Phantom of the Paradise was an exuberant film that could only be born from the imagination of a young filmmaker. It is particularly fitting to perceive it as a cathartic detox of cinematic excesses for which De Palma has become affectionately associated
The movement of his camera along with the costume design infuses the cinematography with a distinct visual identity, and the intense – Herrmann inspired- musicality naturally overlays this visual flare. Phantom of the Paradise is De Palma’s full blooded and creative excess that just two short years later would be tamed for the creation of his classic films, beginning with Obsession. Beneath the surface his cinema is an excess of style of both musical and visual flare.
Merging originality with imitation, De Palma film would merge European influences of the Franco-Germanic variety with the American musical and rock, complimented with shades of horror to craft an eclectic literature based horror-musical satire.
There are films that defy the labels of “good” and “bad”, films that belong to the realm of cinematic experience where critical reasons can be flipped on their head to define it as a cult classic – a tour de force and one of the most distinct and original films on the cinematic landscape. Phantom of the Paradise strikes such an original note it is possible to perceive it as being impervious to age.
Returning to the opening point of the review, is the film a shot across the bow of the music industry or is it indicative of diplomacy on the part of the young filmmaker?
Only just a short way into the birth of the New American Cinema, Phantom of the Paradise is De Palma’s patriotic flag waving in the name of artistic integrity, and the rights of the artist against stifling business interests that are mirrored by Swan.
From the late sixties on through the seventies there was an explosion in American cinema. It was a time in which the director had begun to displace the until then dominant producer. De Palma’s early film is a little slice of if not social realism then cinematic realism, but in the guise of a rock-horror-musical re-imagining of two pieces of European literature – Goethe’s Faust and Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera.
A point of interest is Arrow’s decision to release Phantom of the Paradise post Obsession, Blow Out and The Fury. By doing so they have introduced the more familiar before introducing one of the oddities and more outlandish entries in De Palma’s cinema that serves as an example of De Palma’s excessive and impetuous youth.
Phantom of the Paradise is available to own now on Blu-Ray courtesy of ARROW Films.
Phantom of the Paradise DVD review by Paul Risker.