We should applaud filmmakers for successfully stepping outside of their comfort zone genre-wise. Genre-hopping has created such memorable films as Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003) (yes, he had done violent movies before but, no, this did not necessarily mean he could pull off a kung fu epic) and Martin Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1988). However, we should just as enthusiastically condemn directors who should know better than to mess with what works: Barry Levinson’s Sphere (1998), Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack (1996) (you remember, the uplifting comedy about progeria), and any time Kevin Smith decides to make a movie not specifically about New Jersey wiseasses. So when I heard that one of Brian De Palma’s earliest films was a musical, the film critic in me proceeded with caution while the Schlock-Lover ran head-first, squealing manically into Phantom of the Paradise.
Singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper) has a simple dream: to become a famous singer. Song-writer Winslow Leach (William Finley) has a moderately simple dream: to write an epic cantata based on Christopher Marlowe’s Faust that will make him the belle of the NPR Ball. Music producer extraordinaire Swan (Paul “I wrote ‘Rainbow Connection’” Williams) has a complicated dream: TO RULE OVER ALL OF POPULAR MUSIC WITH AN IRON FIST OF SPITE! When Swan hears Winslow’s cantata, he knows he’s got a hit on his hands. The only thing standing in his way is Winslow. So Swan does the only rational thing and sets into motion a series of events that leave Winslow a hideously disfigured, metal-mouthed creature that is hellbent on revenge! And how best to get sweet, sweet revenge? By destroying Swan’s latest creation: a rock ‘n roll Xanadu called “The Paradise.”
Brian De Palma’s musical entry has to be seen to be believed. It is a metatextual action/thriller/romance/revenge drama/horror/musical. Granted, it is not a straight musical; no one bursts into song. There just seem to be convenient reasons for characters to be performing songs that happen to speak to exactly what they are feeling at any given moment. Mercifully, all of the songs are catchy since Paul Williams wrote them and all the performers can actually sing. And you are going to need the soothing touchstone of musical to ground you through a film that switches its tone more often than a Frank Zappa concert.
Stylistically, the film bounces around references to earlier horror films like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Psycho (1960), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Touch of Evil (1958), and the oeuvre of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funnicello. I am not going to say that the lack of narrative clarity does not hurt the film. I am going to ask how much that could possibly hurt your enjoyment of a film with a screechy, flamingly homosexual glam rocker named “Beef” (Gerrit Graham). "Beef," people, "Beef!"
Bizarre musical productions, awkward romances between mismatched weirdos, and a surprising amount of violence and gore, maybe Phantom of the Paradise was a better indicator of Brian De Palma’s career than thought…