The problem with so many rock operas is they take themselves too damn seriously. But the successful one’s have tended to be satires: “The Rocky Horror Show” for one and “Phantom Of The Paradise” for another.
If director diPalma’s career was never on the trajectory he seemed born for (around the time of “Dressed To Kill” and “Body Double” he seemed set on a Hitchcockian ride) 1974’s retelling of a “Phantom Of The Opera” was an electrifying, very, very funny snapshot of the drug dead, intensely corrupt and rotten at the core music biz of the early 70s. Paul Williams portrayed the Faustian Swan (his record label was a dead bird) as the epitome of corporate greed… literally evil. Williams himself looks like Chuckie the devil doll and he wheels and deals and double crosses are only a few degrees removed from the reality of an EMI or a Capitol (remember Capitols brutalizing of the Beatles catalogue).
Maybe I exagerrate: to introduce his new club the Paradise, Swan steals the Phantoms music and girlfriend, then tries to fire the girl, locks up the Phantom till he finishes the score, marries the girl and tries to have the girl assassinated. Williams is an inspired creep here who ends up in eternal damnation.
Of course, anybody who harmed a hair on Jessica Harper’s head deserve’s eternal or longer damnation. You probably remember Harper as the girl in another great rock opera, Richard O’Brien’s “Shock Treatment” or maybe Bill Murray’s love interest in “Scrooged”, however you remember she is superb as Phoenix with a fragile lovely voice and a sweet heart shaped face and even all these years later she has a quality about so casual yet vulnerable we want to protect her… among other things. As the movie progresses Harper shows a draining of innocence and the sex scene with Swan is like something out of “Rosemary’s Baby”.
All the acting here is terrific: William Finley is a great Swan foil as the ultimated loser turned Monster and Gerrit Graham very funny as the gayest Frankenstein in creation. I think the reason the movie is real despite it being surreal is first its rock solid plotting and also because De Palma is a real director. Part of the NYU school that brought us Coppola and Scorcese, his early work like “Sisters” (just the previous year) seemed hell bent on taking Hitchcock’s, over and above a Ford or ever a Godard, to new places. Two years later he would make Stephen King’s “Carrie”. Here he balances kitsch, satire, and horror in a very successful balancing act “Carrie” does not approve on.
He would have improved on “Phanton” mind you only “Phantom” was a rock opera and Paul Williams composed a terrific score. A series of variations on a musical theme called “Faust” and featuring three musicians playing as surfer dudes the Beach Bums (“carburators man, that’s what life is all about”), doo woppers the Juicy Fruits (“… never knew his father, mother didn’t bother, catch his last name fast as he came”) and glam rockers while Beef sings on a song not a variation “I’m the hero that you created, getting horny and damn frustrated”. It is very funny and very good, better than the two serious takes, Harper’s “Old Souls” and William’s “Faust (Swan)” though they aren’t bad.
Look at it this way: a great director and a great songwriter, neither of which are taking it very seriously, collaborator and we win. In his great career William’s has written songs of the caliber of “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and “Rainy days And Monday’s Get Me Down” . The latter two for the late very lamented the Carpenters, the apoethesis of easy listening. I’d love him if only because he reunited Felix Unger and his daughter on “The Odd Couple” TV show. And here he does exactly what Pete Townsend didn’t do for Ken Russell on “Tommy”, he gave De Palma something essentially light to work.
There isn’t an ounce of pretention, de Palma and William’s are tapping an old time B Movie sensibility to much better effect than “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for all their similarities. O’Brien’s music is on a par and sometimes better but the actually direction of “Picture” show is what “Phantom” is pretending to be. There is nothing in “Picture Show” to equal the Phantom being crushed in a record manufacturing machine, nothing to equal Phoenix and Swan having sex while the Phantom watches from above.
By the end of “Phantom” all are punish’ed and William’s moves on from “Faust” variations for a second time with a malevolent “Hell Of It” from which I will quote forthwith:
“Roll on thunder, shine on lightning
The days are long and the nights are frightenin’
Nothing matters anyway,
And that’s the hell of it.
Winter comes and the winds blew colder
While some grew wiser,
you just grew older
And you never listened anyway,
And that’s the hell of it.
Good for nothing,
bad in bed
Nobody likes you
and you’re better off dead”
Amen and thank De Palma and Williams.
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