The mid 70's saw the musical receive a mini renaissance, mainly because of the cinematic debut of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. You've seen it right? You love it right? Who doesn't?
But what if I told you there was a film made and released a year earlier, made by a VERY famous director, that has a killer glam rock asthetic, songs written by an Oscar winning songwriter and one of it's biggest fans is Edgar Wright... You'd be interested right?
Of course you would... That movie is Brian DePalma's Phantom Of The Paradise.
The movie is 70's version of the classic Phantom Of The Opera tale, with a good dose of Faust mixed in. The movie is not as sexually charged as Rocky Horror, relying more on storytelling and the tragic tale of its hero whose life eerily echoes that of his music, Winslow Leach as played by DePalma staple, Bill Finley.
The movie starts with an eerie monologue, introducing us to Swan, the movies version of Jay Z or Phil Spector and his 50's pastiche act, The Juicy Fruits. From the first number there is an energy to the proceedings, this a proud musical, with much of the first act given over to songs but where Rocky Horror went for shock value, here we get simplicity. Swan hears Winslow performing his work solo, knows he is surplus to requirements but begins the seduction that will part the man from his music, via his sleazy underling Philbin.
While trying to get to the bottom of the situation, Winslow meets Phoenix (Jessica Harper) an aspiring singer who not only gets his music but seems to genuinely like him for being him. It is here we finally get to meet Swan himself, played with some glee by Paul Williams.
Williams was best known prior to this as a musician and songwriter for The Carpenters among others and his signature sound is all over the movie, from the ballads to the rockier numbers. This is his first major acting role and he hits it out of the park, his diminutive stature and babyfaced look make Swan all the more creepy. Where Tim Curry/Frank N Furter was in your face evil about what he wants, Swan is much more calculating and hits Winslow where it hurts repeatedly, first taking his music, then Phoenix and eventually... well you get the picture.
Filmmaking wise there is a lot to enjoy, despite it being a low budget film for the time. Many of DePalma's trademarks were honed here, from split-screen to the long tracking shots he and Scorcese so love and a few playful jabs at other horror films, even Rocky Horror itself with the character of Beef (Gerrit Graham) who is very funny, yet also the most outlandish character.
This is not all up numbers, there are a good number of slower songs throughout, with the major rocking out being saved for the opening of the Paradise, where Winslow, now the Phantom begins to take his revenge.
It's easy to decry this sequence and the song "Super Like You" as a KISS rip off, but this was filmed just as KISS were gaining some exposure, it very possibly influenced them as much as them influencing the film.
From here we build to a fast paced ending where Swan's secret is finally uncovered and the ultimate horror of his plans force the Phantom into action. The ending has a similar vibe to the end of Day Of The Locust. Swan was so successful in creating his vision of the ultimate Rock palace that it's patrons become frenzied against him not knowing where the show ends and real life begins.
Of course there is no happy ending here, there can't be, but the best song is saved for a very fun end credits sequence introducing the players and perhaps showing that while Swan is singing ironically in hell, The Phantom gets to play on in heaven having redeemed himself.
Sounds great right?
It IS... BUT..
This is a film you have to watch all the way through, even if you find it cheesy or even bad. There are a lot of flaws, but most auteurs early work has these. In DePalma's case, his next movie was Carrie, so you can argue this was his dry run in some ways, blending aspects of true horror with the mundane and sometimes silly. Sissy Spacek was even a set dresser and met her husband on this film. A lot of the good in this film translated directly into Carrie, although none of the cast followed.
There is some good work by the supporting players, notably Swan's "boyband", most recognisable of whom is Archie Hahn who was a staple bit part actor in 80's films like Innerspace, Gremlins 2 & Spinal Tap. They take on a lot of personas throughout the film as Swan changes the taste of the nation and give a good account of them all, from greasers to Beach Boy clones to creatures of the night. It's a pretty damning but accurate portrayal on the boyband/manufactured music system, where bad lyrics and gimmicks can take over real talent. Gerritt Graham is comic relief, but also one of the more tragic characters of the piece, he doesn't really do much wrong other than be an awful singer and some questionable Lennon-esque dancing, yet gets the brunt of the Phantom's wrath.
Williams is definitely the best thing in this movie, musically & on-screen. Sure his next roles were as an orangutan in the 5th Apes Movie or Little Enos in Smokey & The Bandit, but here the guy showed he could act well, even if the material wasn't the best at times. The scene where the Phantom corners him and he makes a deal is pretty scary, how he can be slimy, affable and downright menacing at the same time and counterpointed by Swans own deal years earlier, if you liked Willem Dafoe's Mirror work in Spiderman you'll love this.
You've definitely seen Swan's record logo before too, especially if you're a fan of Alt-Rock. You've definitely heard William's later work, he won an Oscar for Rainbow Connection from The Muppet Movie.
So give Phantom Of The Paradise a shot, at worst you won't like it as much as Rocky Horror - it doesn't have the same bombast, Phantom apes a world where Rocky Horror, glam rock and of course evil is a thing...and does it well for a low budget mid 70's musical.
A few years ago Paul Williams tried to get a stage musical version of this going, and it would be great to see, far more deserving than some of the other movies that have made the leap like Legally Blonde for example. Hopefully one day it can happen.
As for the Edgar Wright connection, he hosted an event showing this movie, with Paul Williams in attendance in 2007 and as his blog page here shows, the film and it's lead were a big influence on him. If you're in any doubt about watching the film, visit this link... I guarantee you'll want to watch the film then, if I haven't already convinced you of course.