So there’s a particular strain of 70s camp movie set trippin’ that’s been transpiring for a while. As you know, Rocky Horror is an egregiously-camp 70s musical and cult classic that to this day continues to get toast thrown at it worldwide by drama majors and people who sew their own clothes. What you may not is that there is another, less-hyped and far weirder, bombastic rock musical that came out around the same time, one that many say deserve the attention Rocky Horror has demanded from Hot Topic consumers all these years.
1974’s Phantom Of the Paradise is a Brian DePalma production that borrows from the movie version of Phantom of the Opera, The Reader’s Digest version of Picture of Dorian Grey and whatever Twilight Zone episode was inspired by Faust. It uses these elements to tell a story of just how evil the music industry can get and how, often literally, fame turns people into monsters. Oh and all the songs are written by the dude who wrote the music for Bugsy Malone.
On the surface, both film seem similar. Both take the unbridled free love/enthusiasm of the 60s and heap on the subversiveness and cynicism that became the calling card of 70s cinema. Both have songs, glitter, Outfits, sci-fi and a paradoxically zen-like command of camp energy. But is Phantom of The Paradise that kind of movie dedicated fans should be Tim Doggin‘ about? Is Rocky Horror really a Bitch With A Perm in the figurative sense as well as literal sense? Both movies may not be as similar as they initally appear.
The Phantom of the Paradise’s titular character starts as a meek and nerdy Young Warren Zevon look-a-like named Winslow Leach. Apparently unaware of the dangers of foreshadowing, he’s written a rock opera about Faust, the man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge.
Winslow’s music gets stolen by an evil music mogul Swan. In trying to get it back he gets beaten up, framed for drug dealing and thrown in prison. Oh and they rip his teeth out. It looks like he’s going to languish there, until…
Of course, he’s not really dead. Instead he pulls on the most evil threads he can find and stalks Swans’ Paradise, expressing disdain at the treatment of his work through the medium of murder and fire.
Despite how it may first appear, the satire here is not all in THE BROADEST OF ALL BRUSHSTROKES. Most of the really sly stuff comes with Swan’s house band who, throughout the movie, are variously known as the The Juicy Fruits, The Beach Bums and the Undead.
Take the song that opens the movie: Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye.
A 50s revivalist song about a rock star having to kill himself to get famous enough so that his recording career can fund a live-saving operation his sister needs. That’s already punching way above the weight of most camp musicals humor. But consider that it also mocks dead famous Rock ‘n’ Rollers while aping Grease, the greatest insult they’ve ever been dealt. Nor does it stop there — it manages to point out the reality of what the dudes in Grease would actually be like versus the saccharine way they’re portrayed. All this presented in one of the best 50s pop pastiches around (I’ve put the undisputed champion here for you).
And it doesn’t stop there for the Juicy Fruits, later on they reappear as The Beach Bums, a Beach Boys parody that feels like it’s only a Manson connection and an abusive Dad away from the real deal. Although the song is only secondary to the action the hazily delivered opening line “carburetors man, that’s what life’s all about” perfectly skewers the deepest depths of the Beach Boys’ proto-bro ness.
The last Juicy Fruits appearance comes in the guise of bad-ass Alice Cooper-alikes The Undeads.
If you want the most condescending answer possible to why they’re not Kiss-copyists, go here. Pastiche or not, The Undeads have a pretty stellar stage show and they’ve got the goth thing down. Turns out dismemberment actually makes for a good stage show as Odd Future are probably going to soon prove anyway.
Even the way the Juicy Fruits seamlessly change their image and style based on what’s hip is clearly a commentary on music industry mores. Of course, audiences are much more savvy now and that could never happen.
Rocking as it is, The Undeads song is just an prelude to a certain character’s grand demise:
If Swan is all that’s evil about the music business, Beef is all that’s vain and stupid. Drafted to add some “imperfection” in place of the apparently flawless performance The Phantom’s muse Phoenix was due to give, Beef is played as broadly as possible by CHUD 2: Bud The Chud’s Gerrit Graham. In this interview Graham explains that the direction he was given basically involved being stared at blankly until he whipped out the most outrageous gay stereotype he could muster. Cue much rejoicing.
Beef seems to be the only character who has managed to enter the music business without chronic naivety nor homicidal evil. Dude just wants to get paid. Despite ingesting plenty of drugs and being on the receiving end of a Psycho homaging death threat from The Phantom, Beef is still determined to bellow the songs with his trademark gusto. This determination follows him being threatened at gunpoint while trying to leave the venue (his attempt at flying under the radar somewhat scuppered by him wearing half a Santa Claus costume). Sadly, it’s not to be and arguably the movie’s brightest light burns out quickest.
None of this satire would work half as well without Paul Williams’ adept song-writing chops. Hired to star in and write the music for the film, an aspect that was instrumental in the production actually going ahead, Williams is the one responsible for each genre parody being so note perfect. Williams already had a vast experience of the music biz at the time — he’d been covered by Frank Sinatra and Elvis and written songs for the Carpenters and The Muppets. He also seems to have amassed a degree of bitterness, especially at the time of making Phantom, adding a particular edge to the proceedings.
The Undeads’ make-up may not be the only prescient thing about Phantom of the Paradise. One could even say that the scene in which Swan carefully devises and fine-tunes a machine to give Winslow his voice back, actually predicts the advent auto-tune. This would be kind of a shame as you’d miss out on it actually being an allegory about succumbing to a marketing machine which takes raw talent and shapes it into something palatable, trading individuality for marketability.
Actually, it’s probably just an excuse to show a lot of rad analogue equipment. And rad it is. The scene gives The Phantom his chest electronics and garbled voice which, along with being a black-clad, disfigured, abnormally strong figure driven by hate, provides semi-sturdy ground for the argument Darth Vader is just a rip-off of DePalma’s Phantom. Not an argument that would stand up to much muster in a Tumblr-war or whatever people have these days. But if you’re at a party and some dude’s passing off garbled quotes from Kevin Smith’s horrific podcast as witty Star Wars-based banter, run up on him with that shit and you’re sure to make things a little more interesting.
Weirdly, this is also the scene where it’s most obvious Paul Williams is doing the singing. Williams probably didn’t mean to end up on the bleeding-edge of avant noise but whipsering “doblys” in a plummy accent over a distored verson of yourself crooning about Faust kind of puts him there. Hopefully Wire magazine will do a retrospective on him ( on a serious note, a fantastic and worth-reading account of William’s career resides here).
Paul Williams though, as well as providing music, is also one of the movie’s greatest assets in front of the camera. A squad of Coen Brothers casting agents couldn’t have found a less-intuative yet more fitting man to play the evil record label head. Whatever you imagine an evil mogul to look like, it’s probably a safe bet your first thought won’t be of a dyed-blonde, squat, quasi-lesiban of interminate age who flounces around dressed as a muskateer and speaks like an ealing comedy character trying to affect a New Orleans accent. It’s clear why he was an obvious to choice for the voice of The Penguin in Batman: The Animated Series years later.
Williams is definitely doing some sort of acting but it’s almost as if he decides on 15 seconds of emoting and sticks to it for the whole scene. Still, when the guy who wrote the theme to the Love Boat is ordering murders, flirting with Bud The Chud and saying things like “get this fag out of here” it’s not time to nitpick. In fairness he’s really not the worst as a performer, it’s just that he doesn’t seem to be able to affect any non-smug emotion. This of course makes him perfect for the part of Swan.
But what’s really stopped this mess of a move from gaining cult status is that, well, it isn’t one. DePalma manages to keep the madness belting along at a fair clip and enhances the movie’s unrepentant insantiy with a crazy amount of directorial flourish. Confronted with the option of taking the usual cinematic musical approach, anchoring the movie on a few big numbers and packing any old shite around it, DePalma takes a welcome detour via the Hitchcockian route. Letting the songs speak for themseves, they’re pretty good at that it turns out, DePalma instead focuses on visual set-pieces as the bedrock of the movie and while still keeping the other scenes full of off-kilter camera angles and odd touches.
Just look at once such set-up, a split-screen clip where the Phantom plants a bomb during the aforementioned Beach Bums pastiche:
That kind of weird perspective shift is something you’d expect from a 90s music video, but to plonk it in the middle of your 70s rock opera and have it turn out great requires some serious directorial swagger.
In addition to Hitchcock, DePalma recalls Kubrick’s more manic side and owes an even greater debt to Dario Argento’s Giallo movies. This Giallo spirit of garish colour and the claustrophobic, sweaty, voyeurism typical of those movies is used to great effect in Phantom. It crosses over well with DePalma’s twin obsessions of surveillance and crowd obliviousness, both of which inform not only the visual style of the movie but the plot too (Swan’s deal with the devil involves him watching video of himself age everyday in place of his own body).
You’ll notice everyone involved in Rocky Horror has been on a Tommy Wiseau-style rumor control opertion since it gained cult status, swearing up and down that they knew they were making something that was kind of a piece of shit and that that was part of the joke. No matter the truth of this, it makes people more amenable to bark at it. This,in turn, will help people enjoy the communal atmosphere and feel inclined to come back. Sadly, you can’t bark shit at Phantom of the Paradise, it’d be like yowling at a funeral. Sure, it’s funeral where everyone is wearing tie-dye suits and the priest is dressed in leather, but someone is still obviously dead.
Anyone watching Phantom is usually too awed that even the most throw-away scenes are executed with this level of panache to come up with clever things to shout at it:
(Also notable in this scene is how well they nail some of the most popular song-styles of the time in just a couple of lines. Granted, the whole thing becomes a lot less cool when you realise Swan probably had to drag himself across that golden record table to get in, but if you’ve suspended your disbelief this far you should be able to tolerate an entrance-less table well enough)
Honestly, the cult of Rocky Horror is definitely a necessary evil. It’s important for odd-looking shy people to have excuse to dress up to get fucked (any interloper who has attended one of the screenings knows the prevailing attitude isn’t so much “oh let my freak flag fly” as it is “I hope wearing this dumb shit and acting like a dickhead will lead to me and one of the skinner Riff Raffs and/or Columbias doing the Actual Nasty”).
Most importantly of all, there’s a good chance Rocky Horror could provide a Road-to-Damascus moment. There are few greater impetuses for changing your life around than realizing it’s a Friday night and you’re sitting in second-hand garters while a greying 300-pound postal worker sweats on you, both of you bellowing 40-year-old gay jokes at the cast of the local theme park’s haunted house.
In truth , it’s clear why Rocky Horror became the definitive cult 70s camp rock musical while the Phantom Of the Paradise languishes relatively unfetted. People like celebrations of kink more than they like grim reminders of death, as far as communal viewing goes. They also want a lead character who is an exciting weirdo who gets to be Uber Sexy rather than a miserable weirdo who only grows more and more twisted and bitter. And if you’re trying to appeal to a certain market, it’s probably safer to complete glorification of the worst of screechy goth-fuckheadery rather than the murder of such a character who, up untill that point, had been protrayed as a shallow, drug-addled moron called Beef.
Basically, Phantom is kind of a bum-out whereas Rocky Horroris just fun. Rocky Horror provides an excuse for theatre kids to get as close to shouting “Fuck sake, just give me atttention!” as any nerd of any stripe can possibly dream (bar cosplay, of course).
Phantom of The Paradise is too sad, too brutal. You can’t laugh at anything but the jokes because everything isn’t just well-made, it’s crafted to be as claustrophobic and creepy as possible . Sure there’s plenty of camp, obnoxious characters but none of the are cool as Tim Curry. Instead they’re greedy, corruptable, too-human fuck-ups.
Even the songs suffer from performing their job too well. Each of the genre parodies work so well they sound almost disjointed side by side. Any they’re only meant to contribute to the mood rather than set it. Distinctive and great as each sound, they’re not meant to be the stars. They’re a supporting cast for the movie’s atmosphere.
The main Winslow-penned pieces are well-written and do actually use recycled parts of each other in line with Swan demanding Winslow rewrite his whole cantanta. But they’re not the kind of memorable that breeds an instant, bawdy cult classic.
Take the audition song of The Phantom’s muse Phoenix:
It’s an unusually pleasant song for such a fucked-up movie. It’s there to reflect how naive she is, all dressed like Janene Garofalo at a commitment ceremony and dancing like everyone’s mom at once. It’s a sweet song, it works perfectly in the context of the movie and resists, for the most part, the dive into full-bore Paul Williams Jaunt-a-thon territory. But it’s not exactly ready to get sung in any dorm rooms either.
And then the movie’s musical centerpiece, Old Souls:
It’s a sad, unironic, ballad unapologetically influenced by William’s MOR roots. It also has the misfortune of being delivered by Phoenix, the movie’s weakest character. She could have been another interesting character study in how fame affects people but she’s basically reduced to a Mcguffin for Swan and the Phantom to spar over. Old Souls is a little too mournful and might take itself just a little too seriously, especially considering the musical tone of what comes before and after. In this song you can see why the music in Phantom of the Paradise was nominated for an Oscar and also why it didn’t immediately start getting played at midnight screenings.
Next time you come across an argument about how Phantom of The Paradise was unfairly eclipsed by the Rocky Horror Picture Show let all involved know that, true as that may be, they really weren’t even playing the same game. Phantom of the Paradise is a much sadder, more grand and way weirder beast. Genuinely horrific and heartbreaking in parts and flawed all over the place, it is worth seeing purely because it is one of the few films there genuinely isn’t much else like.
If your interest is peaked and you want to see the rest, you’ll be glad to know two things. Firstly, I haven’t shown you all the good stuff and the Jodorowsky-inspired ending and Swan’s casting couch are both well-worth checking the movie out for if you like what you’ve seen already. Secondly, the whole movie’s up on youtube, albeit in mirrored format to keep away the copyright police. I’d advise buying the dvd though, you’re going to need to watch it again.
Download: (from the Phantom of the Paradise OST)
MP3: The Juicy Fruits-“Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye”
MP3: The Undeads-“Somebody Super Like You”
MP3: Beef-“Life at Last”