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Friday 19 February 2021

Burl reviews Phantom of the Paradise! (1974)


With a Hollywood smile and a perfect profile, it’s Burl, here to review the great rock ‘n roll phantasy of the 1970s! No, it’s not the Rocky Horror Picture Show, it’s the other one: Phantom of the Paradise! Ha ha, this picture really was everywhere when I was growing up: everybody I knew had the soundtrack album and could sing the songs by heart! I still recall how grateful I was on being called in by my father from some onerous outdoor chore to watch the movie on TV!

So needless to say I feel quite fondly toward the picture! And of course it comes from Mr. Brian De Palma, who’s made many movies I’ve enjoyed - ha ha, yes, even Wise Guys, and certainly The Fury! In this tale he evokes Faust and updates the cautionary tale of devilish deal-making to the 1970s and plops it into a glam-rock setting! Ha ha, and in this world, the biggest thing in music is a diminutive impresario called Swan, who’s a combination of Phil Spector, David Geffen, Berry Gordy, Bill Graham, Malcolm McLaren, Brian Epstein, Albert Grossman, and Lou Pearlman, with just a dash of Colonel Tom Parker! And all this while standing no taller than three bricks and a short refrigerator, ha ha; but he’s made a deal with the devil as it turns out, and is a pretty ruthless customer in any case!

He’s looking for the perfect new music to open up his new concert hall, the Paradise, and finds it in the piano stylings of Winslow Leach, a songwriter who looks like a weedier Warren Zevon with just a touch of John Sebastian! Of course Swan doesn’t want Leach, just his songs, and soon the naïve but rage-prone songwriter is ignored, then framed, imprisoned, has all his teeth extracted, and is hideously deformed in a record press accident! He dons a leather outfit and a silver bird mask and becomes the vengeful Phantom haunting a cherubic rocksman’s Paradise!

It all ends in a glam-rock delirium that shoots for complete chaos, but, for budgetary reasons, doesn’t quite get there! This is both what’s wrong and what’s admirable about the movie: they all-too-obviously didn’t have the money to create the Olympus of popular music the story really calls for; but what they did accomplish through inventive filmmaking and the Herculean efforts of such people as set dresser Sissy Spacek, ha ha, is extremely impressive!

The songs are good, thank god! Paul Williams, who plays Swan, wrote them and did a good job sending up the 70s singer-songwriter genre, hard rock, nostalgia rock, softrock balladeering, and glam! (It would be considered a truly prophetic work had it predicted punk, New Wave, and disco, but it doesn’t quite make that step!) William Finley, who was in other De Palma pictures like Sisters, and interesting genre pictures like Silent Rage and The Funhouse, is poor schlubby Winslow, driven mad by the storm of malevolence and misfortune he suffers! Jessica Harper from Inserts is the ingénue, Phoenix, the only one Winslow will allow to sing his songs!

The supporting cast has a quintessential quality! We get Gerrit Graham from C pictures like Cannonball, Class Reunion, and Chopping Mall as the fey and monstrous Beef, a sort of Alice Cooper/Gary Glitter hybrid; big George Memmoli from Mean Streets as Swan’s right-hand man; Archie Hahn from Matinee and many other Joe Dante pictures as one of the rotating band members; and groupies played by such lovely and familiar faces as Janit Baldwin from Humongous, Janus Blythe from Eaten Alive, Robin Mattson from Candy Stripe Nurses, and Rainbeaux Smith from The Pom Pom Girls, Logan’s Run, Massacre at Central High, and more!

Its pleasures are so plentiful that it would be churlish to list its flaws, and so I won’t, ha ha! There’s some of that De Palma trickery of course, and I always love that stuff, even when it’s not top shelf material! The split-screen sequence, for example, isn’t as effective as the one in Sisters, but I still like it a lot! But the bottom line is that I am and always will be very fond of this movie! I’ve seen it on TV, on VHS, on DVD and on the big screen in revival showings, and it’s fun every time! And now I’ve shown it to my son, and so the circle continues to turn, ha ha! I give Phantom of the Paradise three and a half neon lightning bolts!


  1. There's something kind of sick about this movie, in a good way, that anticipates punk without making punk music (unsurprising when Paul Williams wrote it, I guess). Huge in France, apparently.

    1. I think the punk rock aspect comes from the low budget scrappiness of the movie! And yes, huge in France and in Winnipeg, Canada, which held a festival dedicated to the movie for many years!