Review Date: August 31, 2002
Released by: Fox
Release date: 9/4/2001
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
Rock and roll in the mid 1970's can only be described as excessive. Whether it was the "Glam Rock" of the New York Dolls and Gary Glitter, the pretentious "Progressive Rock" of Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer, or just the screaming "Arena Rock" of Led Zeppelin and The Who, the music sure was a far cry from the simple recordings of Little Richard and Chuck Berry. (And don't even get me started on Disco). Was it any wonder that the music world was primed for the invasion of Punk in the later years of the decade? (God bless the Ramones). Anyway, this period of over-the-top music was both satirized and saluted in Brian DePalma's 1974 film The Phantom of the Paradise. Put on your makeup and high heels (and yes, I'm talking to the men, too) for the opening of the Paradise on Fox DVD.
The head of Death Records is the diminutive Swan (Paul Williams), a ruthless, womanizing, and unscrupulous producer. His records have all gone gold, and his current act is The Juicyfruits, a band that encompasses the current rock infused with old doo-wop. Swan is looking for the music to open a new concert hall, the Paradise, and he just might have found it in Winslow Leach (William Finley), an extremely talented singer/songwriter. Leach is composing an entire rock opera based on Faust, and Swan is immediately impressed.
However, Leach never hears back from Swan, and it's because Swan intends on stealing his entire cantata. And to ensure that Leach never gets his proper credit, Swan has him thrown in jail. Leach manages to escape in an attempt to seek revenge, but a few mishaps leave him horribly disfigured, and never able to sing again.
Leach becomes The Phantom, stalking the halls of the Paradise. Swan still wants more of his music, and contracts him to finish writing his opus. Leach agrees, but only if the lovely Phoenix (Jessica Harper) is tabbed as the singer. And once again, Swan has no intentions of keeping up his end of the bargain. Instead, Phoenix is relegated to the chorus and glam rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham) gets the lead role. The enraged Phantom eliminates those who upstage the love of his life, which actually turns out to be good for Swan when Phoenix becomes an overnight sensation. But The Phantom won't rest until Swan pays for his misdeeds, and Phoenix is in his arms at last.
The Phantom of the Opera story has been remade dozens of times, but never quite like this. DePalma keeps the major elements, like the love for the diva, the disfigured face (and requisite mask), and the stolen songs. But the rest is pure 70s music to the extreme. And personally, I think it's a lot of fun, especially for those of us who lived through that time. Around that time, lyrics in rock music took a dramatic turn from the simple boy-meets-girl storyline with the "yeah yeah yeah" singalong choruses. All of a sudden, rock had to be "dramatic", and albums had to have extensive "themes".
What is interesting is that for all of the thematic music at the time, very few productions became theatrical releases, which sure seemed like a logical extension of the style. We got a few "concert films" like Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, but with the exception of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who's Tommy, very few musicals based on the predominant 70s musical styles were ever made. I don't have an answer for this, I'm just making an observation.
In fact, the 70s were sort of the "last gasp" of the musical genre. The 80s brought us MTV, where we could see mini-musicals of all our favorite songs with the rise of the music video (Well, back when MTV actually PLAYED videos). But that still doesn't really explain why the previous decade saw the musical die a slow lonely death. Admittedly, Grease was a huge hit, and despite the 50s theme of it, it was really a 70s production through and through, so it's pretty clear that the public still liked musicals. It's too bad that more weren't made.
Phantom is often compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and justifiably so. But Rocky Horror is the one everyone knows, while Phantom has a much smaller fan base. It's unfortunate, too, because Phantom is a MUCH better film than Rocky Horror. Let's face it, without audience participation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is excruciatingly dull and non-sensical. Phantom has great scenes, excellent camerawork, genuine suspense, humor, and a semi-coherent storyline.
Now, it wouldn't be a DePalma film without the requisite Hitchcock references. And there's just the right amount here, unlike future efforts such as Dressed to Kill and Body Double which are borderline Hitchcock remakes. Instead, he limits it to just a few scenes, like the split screen sequence early in the film (which also has a textbook use of Hitchcock-style suspense) and a fantastic play on the famous Psycho shower scene. While I wasn't surprised to see frequent DePalma collaborator Jack Fisk in the end credits, it was a bit of a shock to see Fisk's wife, Sissy "Carrie" Spacek as the Set Dresser. I never knew that Spacek and DePalma had worked together before Carrie. And of course, every horror fan will appreciate the debut appearance of Jessica Harper, three years before she'd make fright film history in Dario Argento's Suspiria.
The movie moves along at an extremely brisk pace, with a fun story and some good acting. If there's a flaw, it might be the too-soon placement of the concert that opens the Paradise, with Beef's rockin' performance. It's loud and garish, and the rest of the film is not nearly as dynamic. And while other reviewers have a problem with Paul Williams as the lead villain, it made perfect sense to me. I remember this guy showing up on every damn music and variety show on TV, and I always wondered, "Who the hell IS he??" Sure, he's a talented singer/songwriter (he wrote all the songs in the movie), but he must have made a deal with the Devil to get so many television appearances. Oops, did I say too much?
Phantom of the Paradise certainly may have elements of a horror film, but make no mistake, it's 100% a musical. And musicals certainly aren't for everyone. I kinda like 'em and it's too bad we got so very few of them in the 70s, especially considering the decade's penchant for thematic albums. Supposedly, this still plays as a double feature with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but I think it would play just as well with Ken Russell's extravagant production of Tommy. If you like that style of film, definitely take in a show at the Paradise.
Phantom of the Paradise looks real nice here. I've been impressed with the quality of Fox discs lately. The presentation is 1.85:1, and enhanced for anamorphic televisions. This disc catches all the gaudy colors used in the film. Most dark scenes look pretty good too, though a little bit of grain pops up every now and then. But for a movie that's nearly 30 years old, it's a fantastic presentation.
Sound isn't bad either, but I was disappointed with the lack of a Dolby Digital surround track. Phantom of the Paradise is quite obviously music-oriented, and a remix that fills all of the speakers with sound would have been exquisite. But even then, the 2-channel stereo track on here is pretty good anyway. Maybe I've been spoiled with so many multi-track mixes. Dialogue is clear, but it's the music that's most important (c'mon, it's a MUSICAL), and the music does have a nice, full, rich sound. 6 channel might be better, but this sounds all right for a 2-channel mix.
Unfortunately, all we get on here is the theatrical trailer. It's a nice trailer, but I was hoping for so much more. I really wish that Brian DePalma historian Laurent Bouzereau could have participated on this disc (apparently he only works on DePalma films released by MGM), because I loved his additions on the DePalma discs he's done. Even though Fox did a great job with the transfer and the sound, a film like this could have benefited from a few more extras.
I found Phantom of the Paradise to be a highly entertaining film, with just the right amount of DePalma's signature style, 70s music, and excessive visuals. It's not for everyone, as the music will not appeal to some peoples' tastes, and the glam styles are quite laughable. But for those who grew up in the 70s, or those wanting a very different take on the Phantom of the Opera motif, this is required viewing. 2-channel sound and dearth of extras aside, Fox still did a great job restoring this film. Give it a try. The 92 minutes go by real quickly.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B+
Supplements - C-
- Running Time - 1 hour 32 minutes
- Rated PG
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
- French Dolby Digital Mono
- English and Spanish Subtitles
- Theatrical Trailer
- Fox Previews