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Phantom of the Paradise (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
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Directed by: 
Brian De Palma
William Finley
Paul Williams
Jessica Harper
Gerrit Graham
George Memmoli
Bottom Line: 
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Brian De Palma’s colourful rock opera classic “Phantom of the Paradise” is a virtuoso demonstration of this much admired director’s filmmaking craft, which deftly manages the business of juggling multiple levels of genre reference over a sustained period while making the process look utterly effortless. Although the film works beautifully enough as an incisive musical comedy satire on the cut-throat nature of the recording industry, it also functions simultaneously to utmost capacity as an archly flamboyant, glitter-dusted modern fantasia - combining an ebullient camp comic-strip absurdity with exaggerated Gothic high tragedy, as De Palma takes every opportunity to segue-in a dazzling array of quotations from any number of classic horror films while referencing the work of directors such as Hitchcock, Welles and Fritz Lang in the course of interpreting the movie’s marvellous soundtrack (composed by contract songwriter at A&M Records Paul Williams, who also stars as the movie’s sinister Phil Spector-like rock impresario Swan) and its complementary baroque incidental score written by George Tiplon. De Palma oversees a series of imaginative choreographed sequences that demonstrate an aptitude for the film musical genre few could be expected to match, but to which De Palma has failed to returned subsequently in his career. As is often the case with such densely-layered and allusive creative works the film tanked almost everywhere when it was first released … apart, that is, from France (where it won the Grand Prize at the Festival du Film Fantastique in 1975, and has been lauded as a modern classic ever since) and Canada, which even hosted a special ‘Phantompalooza’ event back in 2006 in the city of Winnipeg. Perhaps because its audience elsewhere has only built up incrementally in the forty years since its initial failure at the box office, “Phantom of the Paradise” has never really been blessed with the quality of home release its outrageous costumes, decorative sets and vivid visual palette demand in order for the film’s merits to be shown off to their best capacity. Previous DVD transfers have been dullish or frustratingly variable in quality and only the French were ever provided with a release that was more than a no frills affair.

With their renewed emphasis on finding, restoring and making available to fans and collectors of cult movies rarities delivered in attractively packaged special editions, British label Arrow Video have excelled recently in providing for the specialist niche market which has sprung up for the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray. The digital download still looks set to become the main method of consuming movies for the vast majority of the public, but there continues to be a residual appetite among a select group of film fans for the highest quality HD presentation which only the Blu-ray format makes possible while also allowing all the extras and packaging supplementals (booklets, posters, etc.) that can come with it. Recently, Arrow seems to have latched on to the idea of obtaining the licensing rights for slightly bigger films still owned by major studios, and lavishing them with the same level of attention as they had previously reserved for semi-obscure Italian genre pictures and their like, perhaps after having realised that they can capitalise on the small but dedicated market these films often command even though they are considered too small and incidental for the majors to be bothered furnishing them with the level of attention a specialist label like Arrow is geared to provide. “Phantom of the Paradise” must be the textbook example of just such a film: now a much beloved cult jewel to its loyal fans, it has been crying out for a release that treats it with the level of care and reverence its English-speaking audience has always felt it deserved but have previously been studiously denied.

… Until now.

This is indeed a spectacular-looking edition, which ticks just about every box you could ask of it. Now boasting a stellar, practically reference quality print and a lush, colourful transfer totally free of blemishes or specks, “Phantom of the Paradise” finally re-emerges resplendent as the vivid, visually enticing example of maverick ‘70s cinema it always was; a  cinematically literate spectacle of stylised sets and ludicrous costumes accompanied by the evocative songcraft of Williams, which manages the film’s fluid transitions from comic absurdity to sentiment and back again with aplomb. De Palma’s screenplay borrows elements of the Faust myth, Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Grey” and the 1943 Claude Rains version of Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera” to create a satire of the modern entertainment industry circa ’74 that also inadvertently captures the extremes of today’s ‘reality show’ obsessed version of the star-making machine and the fame hungry wannabes who continue to feed it. Baby-faced recording tycoon Swan is a 1970s equivalent of Simon Cowell: a youth obsessed impresario -- with a flash wardrobe of frilly shirts, glittery kaftans and wing-collared shirts; his David Cassidy hair-do and tinted bubble shades -- who once sold his soul to the Devil for eternal youth and who, as a result, now holds sway over the recording industry and the whole of entertainment culture in general through his Death Records outlet and its bestselling act :a nostalgia based rockabilly band called The Juicy Fruits.

Swan is out to expand his empire with the creation of the ultimate Rock Palace, to be named The Paradise: an ornate, gilded temple to crass commercialism which will be both his Xanadu and a new Disneyworld for the rock obsessed masses. To ensure the success of this flamboyant project Swan and his sleazy talent scout Philbin (George Memmoli) steal the songs of a naïve and unworldly budding songwriter called Winslow Leach (William Finley), the music originally written as part of Leach’s ambitious and as yet unfinished rock opera cantata based on the legend of Faust (a fact which allows Leach’s lyrics to mirror developments in the plot throughout).

Finley’s performance sets the hyper-energetic tone of the movie from the off: looking every inch the typical, slightly gawky‘70s singer-songwriter (part Billy Joel, part Elton John, and part Roger Hodgson), he is first depicted performing lead track Faust at the piano, emoting the lyrics with exaggerated expressivity in a series of bobbing head movements and epileptic swaying gestures. Later, when Philbin tells him Swan wants to work with him and that The Juicy Fruits will 'really dig' his songs, Leach explodes with rage at the mere thought of anybody else being allowed to perform his music, signalling to the viewer that this insular, bespectacled songwriter is already completely unhinged even before Swan screws him over.

Months later, having not heard back from Swan’s office as he was promised, Winslow attempts to gain access to Death Records’ headquarters – a vast Metropolis-style modernist skyscraper sporting Jack Fisk’s Ken Adam-inspired, futuristic Op Art corridor interiors (which De Palma shoots with hand-held camera using dizzying wide angle lenses), but gets thrown out as soon as he mentions his name. Puzzled, and still not cottoning on that he’s being swindled out of all credit for his work, he next turns up at an audition for chorus girls at Swan’s vast mansion house (called Swanage, of course!) only to discover his songs are being rehearsed there as material intended for The Juicy Fruits’ act on the opening night of The Paradise. Still hopeful that there has simply been a terrible oversight, Winslow hooks up with a pretty auditionee called Phoenix (Jessica Harper) with whom he falls instantly head-over-heels in love, and whose pure velveteen vocals he immediately realises express perfectly the heartfelt sincerity of his songs. However, the audition turns out to be a casting couch session, and Phoenix never gets to make Winslow’s case as she too is promptly ejected from the premises for refusing to comply with the unwholesome demands of Swan’s henchmen.

At this point De Palma briefly cranks the movie even further into absurdist overdrive in order to manoeuvre the plot in rapid time through the series of obvious but necessary transitions that need to be made. To do so he employs a series of larger-than-life comedic episodes which allow the cast to deal in exaggerated performance mannerisms while he often indulges in the freedom to under-crank the camera in pastiche of the methods of silent cinema. After the colourful but ridiculous scene in which Winslow makes a last-ditch attempt to contrive an audience with Swan by infiltrating the buxom groupies assembled on the orange circular spinning bed in the record boss’s mirrored boudoir, all the while dressed in a ludicrous floral-print nightgown, a series of quick-fire comic scenes follow, during which Winslow is fitted up by Swan for dope dealing; sentenced to a ‘voluntary’ dental research programme in prison which results in his teeth being removed so that he can no longer sing properly; and then goes berserk and assaults a guard after hearing one of his songs being played on the radio, arranged and sung by the Juicy Fruits in their customarily hideous nostalgia style. The easiest prison break in film history is then achieved in a matter of seconds by Winslow jumping into a cardboard box on a conveyor belt and being loaded into the back of a lorry, to emerge blinking in the daylight on a busy New York street. It’s a sequence where the inherent absurdity of the idea behind it is simply accepted at face value merely because De Palma shoots it like a frenzied cross between a Marx Brothers skit and a Buster Keaton routine, emphasising, if any further emphasis were needed, how the film’s events belong in a heightened realm of comic fantasy melodrama. Now on the rampage, Winslow attempts to sabotage the pressing of The Juicy Fruits record but succeeds only in maiming and disfiguring him-self after getting his head trapped in the record pressing machine! Fleeing the plant he is shot at by a security guard and apparently falls to his death into the East River … ‘Mad Tunesmith Bites Bullet!’ proclaims a New York newspaper in a tiny column near the foot of its front page.

With his only rival now apparently out of the way for good, Swan’s attentions turn to the dress rehearsals for the musical extravaganza he has planned on the opening night of The Paradise (filmed at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas, Texas), and De Palma can now cut to the satirical chase of this outlandish story: the script’s debt to the original Phantom of the Opera plot line is paid off quite quickly in a riotous display of prime De Palma thriller tropes including mobile slasher-style POV camera shots as the facially scarred and now insane Winslow infiltrates the backstage areas of the Paradise and selects his Phantom disguise – black leather and a bird-shaped masked – from a dressing rack. The de rigueur De Palma split-screen effect is soon also given an airing when The Beach Bums’ surfer rendition of Winslow’s song Faust is sabotaged by a bomb hidden in a stage prop Chevy. The fact that the Phantom’s bird disguise mirrors the Raven logo of Swan’s company is a subliminal clue that there is no escaping this mysterious entertainment Methistopheles’ omnipresent design: even resistance can be worked into the master-plan and Winslow’s infatuation with Phoenix soon becomes the bait with which the devious Swan is able to deceive and manipulate the Phantom into signing his own Faustian contract with the Devil, persuading him to give up his campaign of backstage terror and finish writing his cantata in the belief that Phoenix will now be singing his songs come opening night.

This mash-up of German Faust folklore and Leroux’s romantic French melodrama becomes an outrageous, glitzy and often times florid meditation on the evils and pitfalls inherent to the music business and the ramifications of its influence on the wider culture, be it through an incessant marketing of creatively impoverished manufactured acts, or the reality TV boom which takes real-life disaster and tragedy and turns them into ratings-courting spectacles. Swan’s surveillance-monitored entertainment emporium becomes a gaudy Devil’s playground built as a venue in which the corrupting power of fame and adulation wield their terrible toll on all those who become involved in The Paradise project. Swan, Winslow and Phoenix are all under life contract in their own particular ways, and each one variously exploited through their individual weaknesses: holed up in Swan’s state-of-the-art recording den where he is compelled by contract to finish the rest of his Faust cantata using the banks of keyboards, mixing desks and voice synthesizertechnology that have been put at his disposal, Winslow fails to realise that he is actually all the while voluntarily entombing himself in a prison cell, and that there are guards posted outside the locked doors of the studio waiting to brick him up forever, Cask of Amontillado-style, as soon as the work required of him is finished.

Furthermore, Swan plans to have that music performed not by Phoenix (who has been relegated to backing singer status) but by another one of his dementedly awful musical ‘discoveries’, the mincing, gold-lame-clad diva legend that is Beef (a show-stopping performance by Gerrit Graham). Beef injects a healthy dose of deranged diva glamour into proceedings with his ludicrous costumes and make-up, delivering some of the film’s most memorable lines along the way in his inimitable camped up bitchy drawl. Both on stage and off, Beef is really Swan’s Glam Rock Frankenstein’s monster: a hapless, stitched-together & fabricated, misshapen Bowie-like creation of The Paradise who gets caught between the Phantom’s vengeful determination to see Phoenix elevated to stardom and Swan’s plot to turn the whole of the entertainment industry into one vast monument to his ‘youthful forever’ vanity. Beef is even unveiled to the press in a stand-up coffin, as though his corpse has just been disinterred; and his opening night number at The Paradise is performed on an Expressionist Frankenstein’s Laboratory stage set, with a flamboyant Beef grinding out his big number while made up to look like the leotard-clad, recently assembled product of multiple body parts thrust together.  

The cast here is uniformly excellent, Finley conveying the Phantom’s obsessive lovelorn madness with just a single helmet-clad eye visible as he clambers amid the Gothic rafters of the Paradise, and Graham providing a master-class in eccentric comic exuberance, adding zest to an already crazed atmosphere. Jessica Harper couldn’t be more perfect as the willowy songstress Phoenix, conveying her character’s steely determination to make it big alongside the delicate beautify that also captivated Dario Argento when he cast her in “Suspiria” on the basis of seeing her performance in this movie. There’s a winning quality to her on-screen combination of determination and innocence that makes Phoenix the perfect muse for the Phantom but also prone to being led astray by the dark arts of the charmingly persuasive Swan, the latter made particularly compelling by the effortless way in which Paul Williams implies all the self-regarding vanity and Machiavellianism of the character while apparently doing very little. Although cinematographer Larry Pizer, the editor Paul Hirsch and production designer Jack Fisk manage to construct an elaborate artificial film universe for this story to exist in, it is Williams who adds the final ingredient which makes De Palma’s classic fly. Known for his work for The Carpenters and Barbara Streisand, this hit-making middle of the road songwriter has gone on to provide music and lyrics for Alan Parker’s “Bugsy Malone”, “The Muppet Movie”, “Ishtar” and the theme for “The Love Boat” among much else, including a recent return to chart prominence after a collaboration with Daft Punk on their Random Access Memories album; but here he provides a diverse selection of songs spanning the ridiculous  -- the swamp rock of “Somebody Super Like You” (performed by The Undeads) and the operatic Glam anthem “Alive at Last” hollered enthusiastically by Beef -- to the sublime in the form of The Carpenters-esque ballad  “Old Souls”, which is the subject of a revelatory performance by Jessica Harper, the second of two songs she gets to sing in their entirety during the movie and the melody that is used to underline both the film’s most uplifting and its most ostentatiously tragic moments. After the orgiastic, free-wheeling counter-cultural indulgence of the film’s final act public wedding/assassination plot line threatens to tip the movie into onanistic incoherence, Williams gets things back on track with the play-out rocker “The Hell of It” – a song which manages to sound both celebratory and scathing at the same time but provides the most fitting Fellini-esque backdrop to the ensuing parade call montage of characters and incidents from the movie, recalled one last time with the end credits as Williams’ Nino Rota-style coda brings De Palma’s mad carnival to a close.               

 The stunning 1080p HD transfer already discussed at the top of this review is complimented in its excellence by not only an uncompressed stereo PCM track but also a fabulous, booming 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio option, as well as the ability to isolate the music and effects tracks, which is an added extra that will doubtless be much appreciated by the movie soundtrack’s legions of fans. In addition, optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are included.

The Blu-ray package features an ample selection of extras.

The 50 minute ‘making of’ documentary “Paradise Regained” was originally produced for the French 2-disc special DVD edition, released by Hollywood Classics Limited five years ago, but it is as good an example of its kind as could have been wished for, featuring all of the main cast members (including some of those who have since passed away) and invaluable contributions from key crew and production personnel, too. The only giveaway that this documentary was made for the French market (besides the end credits being in French!) comes when actor Gerrit Graham occasionally slips into the language while relating his anecdotes about the creation of his ultra-camp character, Beef; but the folks at Arrow Video have added their own English subtitles to circumvent any potential obstacle to understanding.

Brian De Palma begins his contribution by recalling how the first seed of the idea for a satire on the music industry was planted in his head by his hearing a Beatles song turned into awful lift Musak; and he and producer Edward Pressman reveal that the original intention had been to get someone of the stature of David Bowie or the Rolling Stones involved in providing the music as well as to star in the movie: an idea that soon hit the dust through lack of interest shown by any major names. Paul Williams talks about how he became involved in writing the soundtrack and starring in the movie as the sinister rock impresario Swan, and how this almost instigated something like the casting equivalent of Musical Chairs when he was initially considered for the role of Winslow Leach even though it had been written by De Palma with William Finley, the versatile star of his previous film “Sisters”, in mind. Finley recalls how he helped come up with the Phantom’s bird-head-and-biker-leather costume and considers how, when it was paired with the voice-box chest unit the costume design seems uncannily prescient of Darth Vader’s appearance. The actor also remembers shooting the scene in which Leach gets his head stuck in the record press and how it almost ended in disaster for real when the block that was supposed to stop the real injection moulding press they were using from moving beyond a certain safe point shattered during the filming of a take.

 Jessica Harper tells how she felt far more confident about singing and dancing in the movie than she did about acting, since this was her first time in front of the camera. She also points out that she had to audition against Linda Ronstadt in order to get the role. Editor Paul Hirsch reveals the ingenious method he devised to create the electrocution effect for when Beef gets killed on stage by the electrified lightning bolt, and Paul Williams tells how the song “Old Souls”, sung so beautifully by Jessica Harper during the movie, is his favourite song in the whole of his catalogue. Peter Elbling (aka Howard Oblong) talks about how he and his co-musicians Archie Hahn and Jeffrey Comanor wound up singing and choreographing the song and dance routines for all three of Swan’s manufactured retro rock nostalgia groups, The Juicy Fruits, The Beach Bums and The Undeads, and speculates how the band KISS might have been ‘inspired’ by the distinctive black-&-white face makeup the latter wore during their Caligari themed act. The movie’s lack of success outside of Los Angeles is discussed frankly, with De Palma admitting to being mortified when he turned up at a New York theatre on opening night to find himself virtually the only person in attendance. There were other problems too, most notably with a series of law suits being filed against the independent production company which backed the film soon after Twentieth Century Fox agreed to distribute it, the most serious of which came about when Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant sued as a result of the film using the moniker Swan Song Enterprises as the name of Swan’s entertainment empire, which was also the name of Grant’s recently founded record label. The dispute became extremely acrimonious, supposedly because Grant had been offended by the film’s depiction of someone being electrocuted onstage, a fate which had befallen a friend and colleague of his not long before. This law suit forced De Palma to change the name of Swan’s fictional company to Death Records and to attempt to obscure any overt references to the previous Swan Song moniker by either masking it out of shots or re-editing the movie so as to remove overt sight of it. Some scenes couldn’t be removed and so required the original Swan Song label to be replaced by the matting-in of a replacement logo of a dead crow over the top, anywhere the logo otherwise would have been prominently in frame.

A new 11:25 featurette, created especially for this release by Arrow Video, makes use of unused production footage and alternative takes to reveal how the original movie would have played quite differently had De Palma not been forced into making certain changes in postproduction. It makes plain how the Swan Song logo was intended to have been a part of an elaborate recurring motif which was to have featured through the entire film in order to suggest Swan’s omnipresence. One of the devices De Palma had originally made much use of involved his starting scenes on a set-up which featured the Swan Song Enterprises logo, or some variation of it, very prominently -- such as the square outside Swan’s skyscraper headquarters, which is named Swan Song Plaza and is written in the same font as his logo -- and then slowly panning out as the rest of the sequence gets underway. This creates a calm, graceful, elegant gliding motion at the start of many of the scenes, before they once again descend into the heightened comic-strip madness for which the film is known; this effect is now gone from the movie since all of these quiet opening moments had to be cut out in order to remove the Swan Song reference.

Also ported over from the French DVD release, we have a 9:38 archive video piece by costume designer Rosanna Norton in which she talks to camera about her experiences on the movie, which was her first fantasy picture and still one she has enormous affection for. This becomes clear as she recalls the sense of comradeship between cast and crew and the sense of artistic freedom which was encouraged throughout the making of the film by De Palma. This resulted in Norton being able to get away with some ‘crazy’ ideas such as Beef’s antler belt, which was a suggestion of actor Gerrit Graham. Norton also talks about what inspired her costume for the Phantom but also other makeup designs such as those worn by The Undeads -- citing a mixture of bondage gear chic, the bird masks of the Venice Carnival, and drag queen culture as her primary sources or influences.

Another Arrow exclusive finds director and fan of the movie Guillermo del Toro in conversation with composer and actor Paul Williams. The association has doubtless come as a consequence of the two collaborating on a musical version of “Pan’s Labyrinth” for which Williams is to write the songs, but there’s obviously a great rapport and friendship between them based not only on the director’s love of this particular movie but also partly on the fact that Williams’ work has been the soundtrack to a great deal of del Toro’s adolescence and early adulthood (he admits to wanting to name his daughter Phoenix but having it vetoed by his wife). There’s also the sense that both of them draw inspiration in their work from a feeling of being an outsider in adolescence, and Williams talks about not fitting in as a child because of his appearance and about his desire to be an actor while ‘feeling like Montgomery Clift but looking like Hayley Mills!’ This 72 minute conversation covers a lot of ground during the course of del Toro’s exploration of how the collaborative process between Williams and Brian De Palma actually worked, while incidentally also exploring Williams’ philosophy as a songwriter and the nuances in his performance as Swan. Del Toro has clearly thought about what makes the film work so well, and is full of interesting observations concerning its commentary on ‘the beauty of art and the brutality of commerce’ and about its overwrought and almost adolescent portrayal of romantic love, not to mention the breadth of its inter-textuality, which, thanks to a constant stream of movie quotations, genre references and film styles means the picture actually still feels kind of modern even in this post post-modern age.  

“Paradise Lost and Found: Alternative takes and Bloopers from the cutting room floor” is a 13:39 featurette composed of previously unseen footage which combines silent out-takes and extended footage of scenes from the movie with alternative takes which are run  side-by-side with the scenes as they appear in the finished work. A short introduction in which William Finley looks at the Phantom of the Paradise doll (which comes complete with sink plunger!) rounds off the main video supplementary materials, leaving a selection of trailers and TV spots and a gallery of behind-the-scenes production stills to put the seal on the disc extras.

The packaging provides purchasers with a reversalable sleeve featuring a choice of original and newly commissioned artwork by The Red Dress, and a collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by festival programmer Michael Blyth and an exploration of the film’s troubled marketing history by Ari Kahan, curator of The booklet is illustrated with original stills and promotional material.

In summery, Brian de Palma’s much-loved classic gets a thrilling visual and audio makeover, here, which is sure to delight all its fans. Highly recommended.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!


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