The ever notorious Brian De Palma builds his gothic drama on the foundation of three classic novels—Gaston Leroux’ Phantom of the Opera, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the German legend, Faust, popularized by Goethe and Christopher Marlowe. As it goes, De Palma does the seemingly impossible by creating a perfect transmutation of three novels featuring the devil, the man who sold his soul to the devil in a Faustian trade-off, and the unlikely musical genius, the Phantom.
Despite borrowing the premises from these classics, De Palma manages to present a shrilling satire on the booming entertainment industry of the 70s—revealing the private lives and behaviors of music artists and recording studio executives. The overarching dominance of corporates over art serves as the central theme. That’s only the beginning though as Phantom of the Paradise treads over mayhem and chaos—disorganization and catastrophe.
In this devilish drama, De Palma uses his archetypical violence in telling a story of a naïve music composer, Winslow Leach (played by William Finley), who is robbed and destroyed by the executive of Death Records, Swan (Paul Williams)—only to come back as the devil’s double. Jessica Harper stars as Phoenix, the unrequited lover of the Phantom, but De Palma doesn’t spare her either. Her life spirals down to chaos as her fame increases, as people go crazy over her sultry voice and girl-next-door avatar. Leave it to the Phantom to save her though. He secretly writes songs for her. She gives them life and that’s all the Phantom wants. Nevertheless, we have a villain in the perplexing Swan—who does things his way or the highway, and when the Devil himself faces off against the Devil’s Double, we’re in De Palma territory.
Phantom of the Paradise is content-driven and includes themes from the trio of novels, yet also manages to give a commentary on fandom, the entertainment business, monopoly of recording studios, degeneration of artists, frantic stampedes, and the manufacturing of music stars to meet the needs and demands of these studios. Musicians-cum-artists may create magic, but the magic is all in the hands of these moguls who retain it and reuse it as they deem fit, as it fits their agenda.
For a movie that says so much, Phantom of the Paradise is a breezy ride, which is nothing short of sensational considering the gravity of the themes De Palma explores and the novels he bases this fantastic story on. Paradise contains all of De Palma’s idiosyncrasies as a filmmaker. There’s love, sex, violence, treachery, betrayal, sacrifice, and redemption—making this film a thesis on De Palma and his thrilling style.
Then, there’s overindulgence (Swan) and there’s under-indulgence (The Phantom). On one side, we have the power of control. On the other side, we have the virtue of a genius. In the middle is the struggling singer, Phoenix, in oblivion to all of this—trying to create a path to musical glory. Along the way, she loses track, but her omnipresent guardian angel is always there for her, looking out for her—trying to rescue her from the dirty business and attempting to introduce her to the sound of music.
De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission Impossible (1996) might be more popular than Paradise, but with no qualms, one can safely assert that Phantom of the Paradise is his seminal classic. It’s brutal, gory, and tragic, with some unforgettable scenes shown with a bittersweet touch. It tells a fascinating story of polarities, yet it’s very entertaining. In questioning the underbelly of the music business of the 70s, De Palma not only informs, he entertains. He makes this a joyous watch defying stereotypes. Considering that Paradise is a musical tragedy, the mere fact that it’s warm despite being cold, it’s fun whilst being sad makes this an exemplary piece of art.
What makes Paradise worth it is the fairytale-like presentation. De Palma executes this grave movie with light undertones and sets a fanatical mood. Whatever you see is light-hearted. The gory scenes are shot comically. They’re powerful, but filtered. The villain is what you’d expect from a Disney cartoon—smooth, yet with his own quirks. The Phantom, the unlikely hero, is like Popeye who’s a go-lucky guy that reaches another plane when he smells the air of music, when anybody questions is ingenuity, when people try to plagiarize his compositions, or when they set their evil eyes on his ladylove. His life and his music are only for the Phantom, and more importantly, Phoenix.
None of the actors in this movie really outgrew Paradise. William Finley stars with bravura and naivety as the unlikely Phantom. Jessica Harper steals the show. Three years later, she’d star in Dario Argento’s tour de force, Suspiria—one of the finest horrors ever made, but it’s sad to see that she never reached her true potential as an actor. Paul Williams, a real life musician, probably climbed his highest peak with Paradise. He’s brilliant as the suave, cunning, and quirky Swan—a role, it appears, designed for him.
Complimented by terrific performances, a brilliant script, and De Palma’s unwavering artistry, Phantom of the Paradise is total non-stop action. Taking you to De Palma’s frenzied world, it clutches onto you and doesn’t let go. A fine addition to New Hollywood of the 70s, Paradise is a mixture of love and hatred forming an untouchable pact that carries the film’s legacy until today. The scar-faced Phantom in a match against the Devil, dressed to kill, all equipped to blow you out – a feat, mission impossible to topple.