Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Phantom Of The Paradise

Obstacles Before the Phoenix Could Take Flight: 50 Years of Phantom of the Paradise

Have this article read to you, listen to it like a podcast

Full disclosure: the first time I ever saw Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, circa 2007, I wasn’t sure I completely enjoyed it. Nevertheless, it definitely left an impression. It was at an indoor/outdoor drive-in, and its lead actress, Jessica Harper, was even there to speak afterwards, something now in hindsight I am envious of (yes, I feel envy towards my previously unanointed self.) But as I would keep revisiting the film on various occasions over the ensuing years, I began to appreciate and understand it more and more with each viewing.

What didn’t I initially l enjoy about this 1974 genre straddling horror-comedy-rock-opera with original music by acclaimed songwriter Paul Williams, who also stars? It was one minor detail: the origin story for the Phantom character of the film’s title. This movie was ahead of its time in many ways, not the least of which was its larger-than-life, comic book-y execution. (Williams referred to it as “a cartoon done with real people”). Similar to a superhero’s origin story, the road for the innocent, gawkish songwriter Winslow Leach, played here by the late William Finley, to becoming a disfigured and vengeful caped crusader i.e. the Phantom is… not pretty. And I can be squeamish, i.e. sensitive, about certain things — primarily the mutilation of the human body (ironically, I’m a Cronenberg fan.) So, much like my first viewing of The Banshees of Inisherin or Robocop, I found certain details in this transformation process too upsetting to thoroughly enjoy my first experience with the movie. Like those other films, it is only through repeated viewings that I have come to completely enjoy and embrace this movie, an experience which strangely mirrors America’s own relationship with it. A failure in this country upon its immediate release, 50 years later it enjoys a wild and frenzied cult following (strangely, it was always a big hit in Winnipeg.)

The film was also the aforementioned Harper’s first. She was completely “green,” having come straight from the New York theater, the Broadway production of Hair being one of her credits. She was flown out to LA for a screen test like an old movie star being discovered — like “Katherine Hepburn,” Harper has joked. This whirlwind trip culminated in getting to meet Martin Scorsese (a contemporary of De Palma’s) at the iconic Musso & Frank Grill. She was up against popular singer of the day Linda Ronstadt for the role. She won.

As a result, Harper had zero knowledge of the technical elements of the filmmaking process, down to what hitting “marks” meant (those pieces of tape they put on the floor indicating where the actor should stand or travel to during a take.)

She leaned on Finley, the film’s protagonist and her first scene partner, for support. Because her first scene in the film is ironically a big audition scene, and Finley’s character Winslow Leach takes an immediate liking to her, trying to help her ace a singing audition for which he himself wrote the music, it works. His real-life shepherding of her perfectly matches his character’s objective.

Phantom Of The Paradise 3Not everything to do with the film’s making and its subsequent release went so smoothly. The film’s primary casting was like a game of musical chairs. De Palma, an old friend of Finley’s from their days at Columbia University, had originally written the part of the Phantom for him. Then Williams was brought in after De Palma went to A+M Records to find someone to write the film’s music, and Williams took the role. Longtime De Palma collaborator Gerrit Graham would play the Phantom’s arch nemesis, “Swan,” and Peter Boyle, who didn’t end up appearing in the film at all, was supposed to play “Beef,” the role that Graham would eventually wind up with. At one point, Mick Jagger and David Bowie were even kicked around as possibilities for Swan, which would have given the film a different flavor.

Eventually, Paul decided he was too small in stature to be menacing. He thought he’d look more like a “weird little guy throwing things on people.” He also came to the realization, “I don’t want to be the one whose music is stolen. I want to be the one who steals the music.” He worried that as a popular songwriter of the day, having already written huge hits for The Carpenters and Three Dog Night, this casting might carry with it the implication that his own music had been stolen.

Williams would later praise Finley’s performance, a lot of which was done, as a vengeful superhero type, with the majority of his face covered. “Bill [Finley] does more with one eye and a tear. […] I couldn’t possibly have done that if I had played Winslow.”

And so, Williams embraced the role of Swan, a megalomaniacal, Napoleonic, Phil Spector-like record producer who, as we’ve already implied, is out to steal Winslow Leach’s music and turn it into mass-marketed bubblegum.

Which brings us to the film’s own origin story: like the Aerosmith song, Phantom of the Paradise was conceived in an elevator. De Palma was riding in one when he heard a Beatles song playing over its intercom in the form of Muzak. De Palma said to himself, “They take this beautiful, original creation and reduce it to elevator music.”

This evolved into the idea of what would happen in the film to Winslow Leach’s work. “You see the song being more and more destroyed as it gets changed from one form to another,” said De Palma. We see Leach’s cantata bastardized into varying and ever more popular musical forms until it’s turned into the musical equivalent of upholstery. One of the watered-down versions of his songs Williams composes for the movie is literally entitled “Upholstery.” It is, of course, rendered in the style of the Beach Boys. Paul was a huge Beach Boys and Brian Wilson fan. Said Williams, “The thrill of the picture for me is being able to satirize all the different kinds of music that I love so much.”

These revolving musical styles are primarily rendered by a fictional trio of musicians who morph from a band called the Juicy Fruits, who sing a 1950s storytelling anthem à la “Teen Angel,” to the Beach Bums, the aforementioned Beach Boys parody, and finally to a death rock band called The Undeads, who may have been an inspiration for the band Kiss, specifically in their makeup design. (The film would also go on to inspire Darth Vader’s voice box in the original Star Wars — both films shared an editor.) De Palma had originally wanted to get a real rock band for the film, almost snagging the popular 1950s revival group Sha Na Na, but it was not to be.

Phantom Of The Paradise 2Swan’s power in this musical universe is also a focal point. Said De Palma, “When you become truly powerful you create an environment around you which is a reflection of the way you want to see the world,” citing people like Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner, who created their own worlds they, and everyone else, could live inside of.

In this vein, the original cut of the film shows a universe in which the name of Swan’s company, Swan Song Enterprises, is visually emblazoned across everything, subliminally showing us throughout the film that it’s Swan’s world and we just live in it (reminiscent of Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life, or perhaps Trump Tower.) As the result of one of four lawsuits the film was hit with upon its completion, this effect is now completely lost. Said De Palma, “It was all fabulous until the lawsuits, and then it was like a nightmare.”

Enter Led Zeppelin, an actual rock band. Their manager, Peter Grant, started a record label called Swan Song Records after shooting for Phantom of the Paradise had been completed but before the film had actually been released. Somehow this gave Grant the rights to threaten to block the film’s release, and De Palma had to lay bad graphics over the offending imagery, which in the days before CGI, looked rather… terrible. In the film’s original cut, the words “Swan Song” were everywhere, because Swan’s presence was supposed to be.

Said De Palma, “It was horrible having these mattes that are sort of shaking to cover ‘Swan Song’ that’s all over everything.”

He’s referring to the graphical coverage, particularly in a podium shot where the Death Records logo covering “Swan Song” looks like it’s unintentionally vibrating. There are other scenes they were forced to chop up completely in order to keep the offending words from being seen.

For a story about music rights and original creative visions being destroyed by greed, the fate of the movie on the eve of its release was more than a bit ironic. It’s also ironic that Williams later became the president of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, with protecting artist’s rights being one of his greatest causes.

In more recent years Williams, De Palma, filmmaker Edgar Wright, and author Bret Easton Ellis, among others, have started a letter-writing campaign to Led Zeppelin to try to get them to relinquish the rights to the name “Swan Song” in this one instance, so that the film might be restored to its originally intended form for all to enjoy. The band got back to them pretty promptly with one word, “No.”

While I can’t reveal my sources, I was able to view a cut of the restored print, and it’s a real shame it’s not available to the greater public as the one true print. The restoration to the film’s original brightness and contrast, which was at some point manhandled for mass consumption, also makes a huge difference in the quality of the work. While I can’t speak to which print is touring on this banner anniversary of the film’s release, such a fate for this film is the kind of act against a creative property that the movie’s antagonist, Swan, would orchestrate. In a situation full of ironies, this seems to be the greatest irony of all.

Phantom of the Paradise screens Monday, May 13th.


More to explore