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REVIEW – Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

March 4, 2014

phantom posterFilmJuice have my review of Brian De Palma’s rock opera Phantom of the Paradise. I was not impressed.

Made in the coke-bloat years of prog rock, this musical mashes up Faust and Phantom of the Opera to produce a weirdy-beardy story about a composer who is lured into cooperating with a sinister record producer only for the sinister record producer to betray him, steal his music, get him thrown in jail and eventually try to wall him up in a room in his enormous house. Visually, the film is extraordinary as De Palma makes great use of then-emerging video editing technologies to produce all kinds of split-screen and other effects. My problem was with every other aspect of the film:

Originally a dutiful student of the French New Wave, Brian De Palma soon migrated towards populist films with a hint of artificiality: Carrie and The Fury mused over psychic powers while thrillers such as Body Double and Dressed to Kill obsessed over the appearance of female bodies before hacking them to pieces. Best known for his gangster epics Scarface, The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, De Palma instinctively understood the swaggering pretence of the American hoodlum and how sharp suits and theatrical yelling are a neat way of masking a predator’s scent. Indeed, no film better encapsulates Brian De Palma’s strengths and weaknesses than his much-underrated reboot of the Mission: Impossible franchise: Expensive, slick and entirely populated by people pretending to be someone else, M:I is far more interested in the elegant imitation of humanity than humanity itself. True to form, De Palma’s early rock opera Phantom of the Paradise is obsessed with masks, illusions and pastiches but offers nothing in the way of emotional reality.

As a satire of the music industry, this is pretty toothless stuff not least because while De Palma is quick to point fingers at the excesses of the prog rock era, his proposed solution to the excess is an operatic rock ‘cantata’ based on the legend of Faust. As I said in my review, this is precisely the kind of portentous rubbish that punk set out to destroy and it’s very difficult for a satire to function when the ‘disease’ and ‘cure’ seem equally bad.

The more pressing problem is that the music is almost entirely hideous. Written and mostly performed by the jowly-voiced Paul Williams (of Bugsy Malone fame) this supposed ‘rock opera’ is neither musically complex enough to be operatic nor raw enough to be rock. In effect, this is pompous music theatre with additional cod-pieces. The pastiches are mildly interesting as they do sound quite a bit like the bands they’re supposed to be pastiches of but the songs themselves are neither satirical nor particularly memorable meaning that this vicious attack on soulless nostalgia is itself nothing more an exercise in soulless nostalgia. Watching this, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Dead Kennedys’s “M.T.V. – Get off the air”.

This film has evidently acquired something of a cult following as the re-release comes with a selection of interviews and extras that seems wildly out of proportion with a flabby and emotionally hollow rock opera from the 1970s. However, as is often the case in these types of situations, the interviews unwittingly reveal quite a bit about the flaws in the production process as much like the Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa DVD revealed Steve Coogan’s willingness to work without a finished script and openly countermand the wishes of the director, the interviews included on the DVD reveal Paul Williams to be just as egomaniacal and unsettling as his onscreen counterpart.

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