Monday, June 19, 2006

Carburetors, Man. That's What Life is All About.

Swan (Paul Williams) advises new contractee Winslow Leach (William Finley).

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE 1974, Gaumont/Hollywood Classics Limited, DD-2.0 or 5.1/DTS 5.1/MA/LB/16:9/ST/+, $31.95, 87m 48s, PAL DVD-0
About five years ago, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment finally got around to issuing Brian DePalma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE on DVD and kind of botched the job. The packaging was neither colorful or alluring, the transfer was dullish and flecked with grit, the audio was limited to 2.0, and the programming was completely without frills. Now there is an alternative release from Hollywood Classics Limited, a French company working "on behalf" of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, that has exercised conspicuously greater care in delivering this very special cult film to disc. The French have always recognized PHANTOM as a modern classic; as the packaging reminds us, it won the Grand Prize at the Festival du Film Fantastique at Avoriaz in 1975.
In case you're not fortunate enough to have seen the film, it's the story of a naïve young composer, Winslow Leach (William Finley), who hopes to interest the reclusive rock impresario Swan (Paul Williams) in his rock cantata-in-progress, FAUST. Swan proceeds to steal the music, which Winslow discovers by happening upon a female chorus audition where he meets Phoenix (Jessica Harper), whose voice suits his music perfectly. Winslow is framed for arrest and sentenced to prison -- at Sing Sing, no less -- but escapes in a mad frenzy when he learns that Swan's retro group The Juicy Fruits will be debuting FAUST at the opening of a new rock palace, the Paradise. Winslow is hideously disfigured in a record press while trashing the first pressing of FAUST, and he haunts the Paradise until Swan gives Phoenix the chance at stardom her talent warrants -- his murderous rampage inadvertently turning the opening night into an unparallelled success.
Upon its release in December 1974, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE played well in Los Angeles... but flopped nearly everywhere else in America, particularly in New York City. As the picture flailed about in search of an audience, 20th Century Fox financed two different ad campaigns, neither of which did the trick. Finally, Pressman Williams (the film's production company) shelled out for a spectacular last-ditch campaign by renowned HEAVY METAL artist Richard Corben... but by the time it was ready, the film had had its day.
There are many different theories as to why it didn't attract a large audience. Some cast members feel it was because the film dealt with the craven nature of the music business, which young people still trusted. Or could it have been the title's reference to the Paradise, which wasn't a real place and didn't mean anything to anyone? Personally, as someone who was working as a young music critic at the time, I remember that middle-of-the-road composer Paul Williams' prominence on the film posters didn't do any favors to the film's credibility as a rock movie -- the battle lines (read: prejudices) in music were more clearly defined in those days. But anyone who actually saw the film needed no further convincing that Williams was absolutely the right man for the jobs of composer and actor; indeed, his two-fisted contribution has ripened with time to become PHANTOM's greatest bid for immortality. True enough, the movie's enduring quality has continued to attact new generations of initiates; in fact, last April in Winnepeg, a wonderful-sounding event called the Phantompalooza had the idea to screen the film at a convention-like setting where the film's fans could meet with its surviving cast and crew. It didn't have a big opening weekend, but PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE bids to have one hell of a shelf life.
Watching it on this French import disc for the first time in several years, I was struck by how long PHANTOM sustains its high notes of perfection on so many different levels -- casting, performance, cinematography, editing, choreography, set and wardrobe design, the writing and direction by DePalma, and -- as I say, most significantly -- the words and music of Paul Williams, whose inspired libretto manages to simultaneously honor the past of rock 'n' roll while also satirizing it and venturing fresh and meaningful dimensions of wisdom and poignancy. No fantasy film buff can fail to marvel at the sheer breadth of the visual references DePalma and Company cull from the genre's past; the "Somebody Super Like You" sequence alone manages to fuse German Expressionism and Universal horror (not to mention the playful severed head tossing from Roger Corman's TALES OF TERROR) with the macabre stage antics of Alice Cooper into a dazzling synthesis of horror's past, present, and future.

Swan's house band The Juicy Fruits reinvented as Goth act The Undead:
Jeffrey Comanor, Harold Oblong (Peter Elbling) and Archie Hahn.

I mentioned performance, but merely mentioning it downplays the fact that everyone here was inspired to give their very best work, and performances such as those given by Jessica Harper, Paul Williams, Gerrit Graham and William Finley (so magnificently unlike his sinister menace in SISTERS) only seem sweeter with the passing of time. Harper, of course, had the talent and charisma to become a major star, not to mention a uniquely smoky gamine quality, but her audacious career choices (INSERTS, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, SHOCK TREATMENT and, of course, SUSPIRIA) and self-confessed independent streak worked against this, but she's played her career her way and undoubtedly derived great satisfaction from it. Also delightful is MEAN STREETS star George Memmoli as Philbin ("She was more than just a piece to me -- she was the light of my life!"). Had he lived, he would have surely gone on to become a SOPRANOS cast member.

I would love for someone to persuade me otherwise, but I've always found PHANTOM loses its momentum after its climactic rooftop sequence where the Phantom (William Finley) attempts suicide after witnessing a tryst between the evil Swan (Paul Williams) and his beloved interpreter Phoenix (Jessica Harper) and discovers himself and Swan both signed to contracts with the Devil. The remainder of the picture too abruptly switches gears from sprightly dark comedy to outright cynicism and tragedy, and the grand Dionysian finale at the Paradise is too shapeless and uncontrolled a conclusion to a story that is otherwise so well-constructed and resilient in the face of darkness. Had the film ended there, it would have been seriously compromised but, somehow, the end credits montage -- set to an extended take of Williams' rollicking "The Hell of It" -- succeeds in rescuing everything at the last minute. The Nino Rota-like music accompanies a montage of all the casting and performance coups, which is enough to refresh our emotional memory as to how wittily and wonderfully we've just been entertained, and send us out of the viewing experience on a cloud.

A star is born: Jessica Harper as Phoenix.

As mentioned above, the domestic DVD issue of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE was a serious disappointment. The French disc looks cleaner and moderately sharper, but, for reasons unknown to me, never on home video -- not on Beta, VHS, laserdisc, or DVD -- has the film ever conveyed the sparkle or the vivid presence it had in 35mm. Though the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer here is a notable improvement, the source elements include individual shots that look noticeably paler than the surrounding material, as if some footage had to be recovered from secondary elements and heavily cleaned. The continuing dullish complexion of the image may have something to do with the extensive optical work imposed on the film in post-production (to replace the "Swan Song" logo with that of "Death Records," when Led Zeppelin's newly-named record label brought suit against the film's producers); in the accompanying documentary, both DePalma and editor Paul Hirsch mourn the loss of the film they originally made, a "sinuous beauty" beside which the known version would be no more than an ugly stepsister. But this can't be the entire explanation because the film had a more lustrous, ebullient look in its initial theatrical playdates. Incidentally, though the packaging specifies this as a Region 2 disc, it is PAL Region 0.

The French disc offers the English and French 2.0 stereo tracks found on the domestic release, as well as brand new DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio remixes. All of the musical performances are post-synchronized, so, even at its best, the music has no "live" presence and the studio recordings have a studied execution that's somewhat at odds with the freewheeling performances. That criticism aside, the presentation of the songs is unfailingly exciting, and DePalma's imagination as a director of musical sequences, hereafter untapped, is one of the film's greatest strengths. All of the soundtrack options are a delight, but the 2.0 mix needs cranking up; once the volume is adjusted, it improves upon the strictly separated stereo channels of the theatrical prints with a still discrete, yet more organic, embracing stereo image. Of the two five-channel mixes, both are outstanding -- what they do with the background vocals is especially revelatory -- but the DTS has the more shapely bass signal to our ears. If only the soundtrack album was available in a 5.1 mix...

"No one but Phoenix can sing FAUST! Anyone who tries... dies!"

A second disc includes "Paradise Regained," a delightful 50m 14s documentary that interviews nearly all of the surviving principals, including producer Edward Pressman, cameraman Larry Pizer, and editor Paul Hirsch (who contributes some of the best anecdotes). One wishes it had been a bit longer, because mention of how the production was slapped with four different lawsuits after Fox acquired the film for $2,000,000 does not explain how these respective suits were satisfied or dropped. People who love the film will be gratified by the actors' acknowledgement of the film's importance to them, and amused by their accounts of encounters with fans over the years. There are two minor sources of frustration. First of all, the documentary was clearly produced with the French DVD in mind, and Gerrit Graham chooses to reply to some questions in unsubtitled French. It's very basic French, though, and not too hard to follow. (Graham also contributes a 50s introduction to the film in French.) Secondly, cast member Archie Hahn is present at the interview of fellow Juicy Fruits member Peter Elbling (who worked under the name "Harold Oblong") but isn't interviewed onscreen, instead popping into frame now and again as Elbling's faux make-up man. His input would have been more desirable than the joke. Other extras include a 10m monologue of reminiscence from costumer Rosanna Norton (welcome but too long by half, frankly), a fake commercial with William Finley pitching a Phantom action figure that was actually once marketed in Japan, two trailers, and a French music video by Bob Sinclar ("I Feel for You") inspired by the "singers audition" scene in PHANTOM.

In the "Paradise Regained" documentary, Jessica Harper observes: "In the film [DePalma] depicts the entertainment business as being sleazy and I think there's no question... it still is sleazy, and it always will be, with a few elements of truth and beauty." PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is surely one of those elements -- a film very much of its time whose pleasures, like its warnings, somehow never grow old.

The Gaumont disc of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is available here.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent piece about The Phantom... although I was sad to see that you had left out the 18 week run it had in WinnIpeg during it's initial release. I was 4 and I was there on the 4th day and have attended every screening I have found since. If the Phantom actually has a Paradise, you can bet it's the Garrick theatre in Winnipeg.

    JH

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  2. I LOVED being in that movie! :)

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