The lights are down, the air is heavy with anticipation, and I’m being detained in the parking lot because apparently the theater manager doesn’t “have” to let me check the rafters for monsters, which can mean only one thing: it’s time for Screaming In Harmony, where we shine a spotlight on monster murder mayhem musicals! In keeping with this month’s Sound of Screamstheme, tonight’s feature is a musical about making music, The Phantom of the Paradise.
Phantom of the Paradise is a 1974 rock’n’roll reimagining of about half of the English canon. In addition to its namesake, The Phantom of the Opera, it draws inspiration from Christopher Marlowe’s Faust and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Directed by Brian De Palma (Carrie) and led by Paul Williams, Phantom of the Paradise released to low ratings and a disappointing box office return. We live in the future though, and we’re lucky enough that this story that the audiences rejected has a deluxe Scream Factory Blu Ray release you can enjoy it in all its glam rock glory!
THE SHORT VERSION
Winslow (William Finley) is an aspiring songwriter. His work catches the ear of enigmatic record producer Swan (Paul Williams), who thinks that Winslow‘s music is the perfect fit for the opening of his new club (the titular Paradise). Swan steals Winslow‘s music, which sets Winslow on a series of schemes to confront the rich and famous producer. This gets Winslow beaten, arrested, and serving a life sentence in Sing Sing (get it?), where his teeth are pulled and replaced with metal dentures. He escapes prison and tries to destroy Swan‘s Death Records, but instead gets his face all burnt up and his vocal cords mangled. He makes his way to the Paradise, where he dons a mask and costume and becomes the Phantom of the Paradise!
After causing some trouble around the place, including blowing up a band during rehearsal, the Phantom and Swan come face-to-face. Swan makes the Phantom and offer he can’t refuse, a chance to bring his music to life the way he’s alway envisioned it, and the Phantom signs a contract in blood. The Phantom works tirelessly in the studio to compose an opus for Swan, and now he can talk with a machine he wears on his chest. He’s not much of a singer, though.
Swan and the Phantom had agreed that Phoenix (Jessica Harper), an aspiring singer and the Phantom‘s muse, should lead the show. However, Swan changes his mind and brings in a ringer: a glam rock himbo known only as Beef. In a move of further treachery, Swan has the Phantom sealed into his studio. The Phantom escapes, threatens Beef, and makes it very clear that the show must not go on. Swan doesn’t care about that, and puts on a spectacle of death and chaos never before seen in rock’n’roll. How will the Phantom respond? Well, I’m certainly not gonna spoil Phantom of the Paradise! I’ll just say this: the twists in this story are less obvious than you might expect.
GORE AND SCORE
Being a musical about making music, you’d hope that the songs for Phantom of the Paradise are good. Don’t worry, the soundtrack to this movie is excellent. Let’s all give Paul Williams a round of applause. In addition to bringing Swan to life, he composed all the music for Phantom. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he wrote basically every song ever. Let’s take a look at some of this movie’s standout tracks:
Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye– In the Phantom of the Paradise universe, Swan basically invented nostalgia. This song is an homage to the “death ballads” of the 1950s, with a doo-wop/ early rock’n’roll sound.
Faust– This song is the reason we’re all here. This is Winslow‘s song that Swan takes for himself, setting the plot of the movie in motion. It’s the kind of sad man piano song that dads go crazy for.
“Let’s all give Paul Williams a round of applause. In addition to bringing Swan to life, he composed all the music for Phantom.”
Upholstery– After a wardrobe change and a rebranding, the band that performed Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye is back. This track is more in line with the vocal surf pop of early Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.
Special to Me– Phoenix sings this song at her audition, and it’s where Winslow decides she’s the perfect fit for his work.
Phantom’s Theme (Beauty and the Beast)– Possibly the emotional apex of Phantom of the Paradise, this song is another gloomy piano song.
Somebody Super Like You– With another rebranding, the same band from Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye and Upholstery shows up in KISS makeup and start beheading audience members with pointy guitars. This melancholy shock rock song starts with one of the best tropes in the rock’n’roll oeuvre: way too much wah pedal.
All in all, the songs from this movie work well enough to listen to outside the context of the story. The Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack rips.
I know we just gave Paul Williams a round of applause, but it won’t hurt to do it again. He’s great in this movie, and he gave it its sound. Keep clapping for costume designer Rosanna Norton, because the Phantom costume is amazing. The mask, the makeup, the teeth, the cape… it’s crazy that more people don’t go as the Phantom for Halloween! Finally, let’s give it up for Gerrit Graham as Beef. His performance is one-of-a-kind, and it gave us the most gif-able moment of the movie during his concert appearance.
Phantom of the Paradise is an absolute blast. If you’ve never seen it, go ahead and clear your schedule. The songs are good enough to stand on their own, the costume and set design are striking, and it’s directed by one of the most talented filmmakers to ever pick up a camera. I really can’t say enough good things about this movie!
The studio where the Phantom composes his masterpiece is one giant synthesizer named TONTO. If you want to hear a room-sized synthesizer in action, pick a Stevie Wonder track at random and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll hear TONTO somewhere in the mix.
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