Phantom of the Paradise, Brian De Palma's campy rock musical, skewers so many aspects of rock 'n roll that, were it not for the director's indefatigable cheek, it would make the cynicism of This is Spinal Tap seem downright jovial in comparison. With De Palma at the helm and pop music songwriter Paul Williams providing the music, however, the film feels less like a barbed attack on the changing pop culture landscape than a tribute to past and present styles of rock from people who love it enough to view it honestly.
How could you expect anything but a tongue-in-cheek take on rock from the opening voiceover, as a solemn voice gravely intones lines about a great evil responsible for terrible actions, only for the achievements in question to involve rock music. The nefarious Swan took blues to Britain, brought Liverpool back to America, and even --if you have any small children in the room, please send them out now -- mixed rock and folk! Swan combines elements of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Faust legend that informs a rock opera composed and performed by several of the film's characters, and the severity of that mixture, when placed against the absurdity of the narrator's dire warnings, make for some of the best comedy to yet grace a De Palma picture.
Lest you think the director might be getting highbrow with those literary references, however, Phantom of the Paradise immediately dips into parody, opening on a '50s throwback band named The Juicy Fruits as they sloppily work through a number, relying on leftover costumes from West Side Story instead of their music to win over the audience. Swan watches from the wings, intrigued by the possibilities of the act in the current market, but what truly catches his attention is the band's backing act, a singer-songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley, the madman from Murder à la Mod). Winslow is working on an epic rock cantata version of Faust, and the section he plays convinces Swan that his music would be perfect for the opening of the record producer's proposed concert hall The Paradise.
De Palma and Williams waste no time in lampooning the image of the record producer. Swan informs the young composer that he loves the piece and wishes to record it, but he soon muscles Winslow out of the picture, steals the unfinished composition and guts its intended solo reading in order to reconstitute the piece as a maximum money earner. Swan, played by Williams in all his 5'2" glory, manages to cast an imposing shadow, setting up auditions where females must use their throats for something other than singing, having police plant smack on Winslow when he comes to demand royalties and arrest the man on drug charges, even looking at the deaths of any of his stars as surefire ways of to sell more records and get more press. (How does that sound in the wake of the death of many counterculture heroes and the death of Elvis still to come, all of whom saw massive booms in record sales in death. Hell, what about Michael Jackson's recent death?)
After Swan sends Winslow to prison, the weak-willed composer spends six months in shock, experimented upon by prison doctors who tear out his teeth and replace them with metal dentures. When he hears his butchered version of Faust played by his despised headliners The Juicy Fruits, Winslow breaks out of his funk and jumps to the other extreme, made so enraged that he punches out a prison guard, escapes back to the city and makes his way to Swan's Death Records headquarters and destroys everything he can.
If you didn't guess already from the title, the film takes from the storyline of Phantom of the Opera, so it follows that Winslow should suffer an injury, which he does when his sleeve catches on a record press and his head gets crushed. Left mutilated and mute by the accident, drapes himself in a helmet and a cloak and infiltrates The Paradise in order to seek his revenge.
From there, Phantom of the Paradise morphs into a musical to rival The Rocky Horror Picture Show in sheer cult madness. Swan, who quickly discovers the intruder and guesses his true identity, manipulates Winslow further by playing on his love for Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a beautiful, supremely talented singer he met when he went to confront the producer over artistic theft. Swan can see her talent as well, but he cares less for skill than how he can use the woman to twists the screws into Winslow deeper. At this point, Swan reveals himself to be a Satanic figure, drawing up a contract that promises Winslow the freedom to complete his cantata and to make Phoenix the star, a contract that must be signed in blood and binds the lives of the two men together, so that Winslow cannot kill himself when Swan inevitably reneges on his end of the bargain.
The depiction of Swan, the producer, as Satan points to the film's broad swipes at the music business: Williams is not physically imposing, but he convinces women to fall over themselves at his feet in the hopes that he will grace them with stardom, though he never bothers to hear any of them sing. With Winslow locked away finishing his work, Swan auditions bankable talent to increase sales of the rock opera, and he runs through every contemporary style, from country rock to Supremes-esque doo-wop, settling at last on Beef (Gerrit Graham), a glam/shock rocker who masks a complete lack of skill behind glitter and outlandish stage antics. When he speaks, however, he does so with the most egregiously effeminate lisp I've ever heard in a parody, and I've seen a number of Mel Brooks films (every time I looked at him I saw Rob Halford from Judas Priest, crafting the image of macho sexuality for two decades before coming out to a confused fandom). Backing Beef are the members of The Juicy Fruits, who'd already switched tone once to surf music ("Who wants nostalgia anymore?" Swan asks rhetorically) and shifted once again to follow the popular trends.
Naturally, a De Palma film must feature no uncertain amount of trickery, and Phantom of the Paradise might be his most technically convoluted yet. The director chucks in several uses of split-screens, tracking shots that move a full 3600, distorting focal lenses, intertitles, canted angles, POV shots, altered film speeds and likely a tree-shaped air freshener as his way of saying "Thanks." Black fills the edges of the mise-en-scène, setting off the lighter colored objects against seeming nothingness, stressing the hellish nature of the Faustian story as if the film was shot in oases of matter in the middle of infinite darkness. Juxtaposed with this surprisingly sophisticated take on the visuals of the insanity of the subject matter is the uproarious depiction of the performance of Faust, using stage sets taken from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. So magnificent is the send-up of pretentious art-rock, and so unexpectedly catchy are some of the tunes, that I found myself wishing that Williams had written out the full thing.
Interesting as De Palma's visuals are (and aren't they always?), what grabbed me about Phantom of the Paradise is how funny it is. Oh, how I laughed, dear readers. I laughed as hard as I have at any film in some time, and I believe it is to the film's credit that I could never figure out whether I was laughing with it or at it. Delicious lines like "I know drug-real from real-real!" rub against sight gags including the funniest Psycho shower scene parody ever filmed, involving a man wearing a space helmet and speaking through a voice box using a plunger. It lacks the savage, layered wit of his masterpiece to this point, Hi, Mom!, but Phantom offers a glorious screwball comedy to serve as a foil to the director's breakthrough thriller, Sisters. Besides, rock 'n roll is so inherently mad that the well of comic material it inspires may never dry.