Welcome to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you what you could be watching instead of picking through some show that is basically fan fic of another show and that is just a rip off of another show and all the way back to the beginning of time when all those stories were told on stone tablets. There’s this idea that there are no new ideas going around in the world. Whether or not you think that might be true depends on who you are but a lot of the most popular stories are pretty damn old. Take the troubled lovers trope. It’s that thing you see in literally every romantic comedy that you’ve ever seen. The dashing hero is taken with a beautiful love interest but either he’s already with someone else or she is. Or he’s not the type to settle down. Or she’s got a very traditional family that he believes wouldn’t approve of him. Or there’s a big fat obstacle in the way of them getting together but somehow serendipitously they find a way and instantly become infatuated with each other. The rest of the film is all just hijinks until the inevitable happily ever after. If you’re completely sick of this storyline and think it’s been done to death, you would be entirely right but your criticism is coming several thousand years after it was made entirely too popular. This is the tale of none other than Cupid and Psyche and has been a mainstay in literature and other media since the second century.
The point of this pointless little foray into the history of literature is that we likes our familiar tales a lot. We like them so much that we want to keep them with us for the ages, including modernizing and updating them so we keep telling these tales in ways that still ring true for us as the decades roll on. These stories tell us things about the past, the present, what we value and who we are. And a tale that is older than dirt and still manages to make its way around the ring every few years is none other than one of my personal favorites, Faust.
Unless you are the kind of literary nerd who doesn’t get out to many social gatherings, that name might not mean much of anything to you. That said, you know this story. You’ve seen it a million times in everything from books to film to episodes of your favorite sitcom. No joke, this has literally been with us forever. Even the first recorded stories of Faust are adaptations of tales that were going around for a long time before that so when I say that this tale is old as dirt, I’m completely serious. Then again, how could it not be? Last time we reviewed a movie here, we talked about that secret voyeuristic fear and fascination that we all have about seeing our neighbors getting up to no good. It’s a primal kind of story, that one, because it plays with our need to know things. It digs at our wants and punishes us for it by making the protagonist, and by extension the audience, fear for their life as the story unfolds. If that story type is a part of our instinctual curiosity, the one at the heart of this week’s movie is at the core of our deepest fantasies and one of the reasons that it has endured as long as it has and why it will never die. After all, who could honestly resist the prospect of the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy? What would you give to have the one thing in your life that you’ve always wanted? What is it worth to you to have something that you’ve wanted so badly it becomes an obsession and struggled to get so badly that you have sunk most of your life into the pursuit of it? What would you say if someone were to come up to you today and tell you that they could give it to you in an instant? All you had to do was sign on the dotted line and all those years of struggling and wishing and failure and hoping are all behind you now. Just sign and it’s all yours.
Again, if you’ve read or seen anything over the course of your life, you already know where this is going. And you probably know what that tiny little signature means you’re selling, right? Bafflingly, there are still an awful lot of film protagonists who don’t seem to be that on the ball with these things but that isn’t the point. The point is that we know already not to sign because we know exactly who we’re dealing with and what’s at stake. Still, it never fails to give us pause and that’s why we always come back to Faust and his tempting little deal with someone who may or may not be the devil. Despite the fact that we know better, we still wonder. We will always want to know what becomes of the person who says, fuck the consequences and signs anyway. And that’s exactly what our main character in this week’s film does. Despite already knowing the story of Faust. And then he becomes a phantom haunting a rock opera house. Which is yet another story. And then there’s another version of Faust that we deal with where a portrait of a kind is aging but the person in it is not and that comes into play and I swear that this is a Faustian story but there’s so many other bits in it. Getting confused yet? Well strap in because this film is one of a kind. This is Brian De Palma’s incredibly 70s musical horror story, The Phantom of the Paradise.
Now, when you think of the idea of selling one’s soul for the thing they covet the most, I’m going to guess that you probably have a fairly serious tone in mind. After all, the person involved is supposed to be looking at eternal damnation for something they want more than anything, right? It’s not always mandatory but most would picture that this is at least a little darker in tone. Whatever you’re expecting, I’m going to guess that it probably wasn’t a short narration on a mysterious figure named Swan, a music genius who has so much power in the business that he alone decides who is worthy of clapping for, followed by a rousing doo-wop group named The Juicy Fruits riding the retro wave of the 1950s. That, however, is exactly what you get. While our 50s (by way of 1974) music plays us in, making you question your decisions in life, we are also able to get our first glimpse of our protagonist(ish) character.
We don’t get to hear him speak but Winslow Leach, played by William Finley, shows us everything we need to know about him as he angrily sets up to follow the group on the stage. Unsurprisingly, once our flashy 50s throwback gets the Swan approval, everyone just picks up and leaves, letting Winslow play his epic piano cantata to an empty room. Leach, you see, embodies that something that you could still get away with in the 70s but was quickly falling out of fashion, even before the rise of what was coming in the next decade. There’s a quote that I’ve heard for many years though I can’t find anyone to attribute it to (I will happily update this with credit should someone find it), but the saying has been going around pretty much my entire life. That saying is that music was more interesting when ugly people were allowed to make it. There’s a whole world of criticism out there about how plastic pop music is and whether or not you should respect successful artists who are clearly just cashing in on a particular sounds to be popular. What’s interesting is that these aren’t new arguments and you don’t have to look any further than this film to see that. In 1974, this film gave us the dulcet tones of Winslow Leach singing his magnum opus, a rock opera based on Faust. The thing was that Winslow was not attractive by any conventional sense, he wasn’t the greatest singer in the world and he wasn’t flashy or interesting to look at. His whole world was built around being a musician and that was all that mattered to him. He was never going to be a pop star but he had talent and created something that our main antagonist was quite taken with.
And from here, let’s get to that dashing antagonist, Swan. Played to perfection by musician and actor, Paul Williams, Swan isn’t even introduced until well into the film but his presence is felt heavily throughout. The opening narrative gives you everything you need to know. The guy was a musical genius and began his career in the 50s when he was only fourteen. He has so much sway in the music business that he can make or break anyone. Before you even get to see him, you get to see what he is capable of. His main lackey is bitching about how he helped discover and build a pop singer that’s currently on top of the charts, angry that she’s managed to weasel out of her (incredibly unfair) contract with them. The guy is speaking directly to Swan and his response is collected, almost to the point of bored dismissiveness. He is my favorite kind of antagonist because he’s just so in control. He’s also shady as fuck and when he decides that he likes Winslow’s music but could do without the guy singing it, he basically gets said lackey to go down, grab it and swindle our naive little Leach into giving him his life’s work for nothing. And during all of this, you still never see Swan. You see his gloves and you hear his voice but they really did pull a Casablanca moment in how they revealed him. It’s a smart move because it really does kind of unnerve you at how much power this man has and how much he can do. And what he sees, which is an important point for later.
Now, initially, Winslow is a bit on the dumb side, handing over his entire life’s work and waiting a month before he thinks, gee golly I should probably check up on that whole shady deal where that guy told me the famous music producer would like my stuff. From here, you can pretty much switch out the soundtrack for the Yakety Sax theme from Benny Hill because the action turns into something like a live action cartoon. In his bumbling around, Leach is still naive enough to think that this is all just a misunderstanding and that all he has to do is talk to Swan and get things cleared up. What he finds upon getting to the lair of the man himself, a huge mansion called Swanage, is that his music is set to be the opening pieces of what is to be the music producer’s crowning achievement in his career, The Paradise. It’s basically a rock opera house that will broadcast live theatrical concerts. Remember, this was long before the internet or anything that had the scope of what we can enjoy now, so the idea of this cutting edge house of music pre-dating things like MTV or Much Music would have been a massive endeavor and a huge deal. This would have been great for our little composer if his name were on the music. Sadly, along with his innocence, his writing credit has been tossed aside and instead of him singing his own songs, Swan has been auditioning a group of women sing for him. Well, that’s a bit of a stretch. Mostly Swan has been holding a casting couch and allowing a whole bunch of ladies to come in and fuck him for the distinctive pleasure of saying they’ve been with him and leaving.
In the queue to audition for a part is a young lady played by Jessica Harper. The lovely Phoenix, a young singer who is just as painfully naive as Winslow, is anxiously awaiting her turn, trying to practice when Leach sneaks in and hears her. He’s impressed with her voice, praising and encouraging her. The two strike up a quick friendship when he agrees to help her get a role because he believes that she is truly deserving of it because of her talent. With their combined efforts that, night, Phoenix ends up nearly getting sexually assaulted and Winslow gets thrown out, beaten up and framed as a drug dealer. Things get worse for Leach as he gets thrown in jail and, as an added kick in the crotch, the Swan foundation has a program where he and a bunch of other prisoners get voluntold that they will have all their teeth removed and replaced with silver metal dentures in order to prevent them from getting expensive and annoying oral infections. This effectively destroys his ability to sing. After six months of being in prison, doing mindless work, Winslow is pretty broken up but his last straw finally breaks when he hears on the radio that The Juicy Fruits are going to be singing one of his songs to open The Paradise. Our now silent composer goes understandably bat shit and manages to Yakety Sax his way out of prison and into Swan’s record company building, hoping to destroy everything in his path in a fit of rage. He succeeds in getting into the building and going so far as to start wrecking the records that have already been printed but due to hijinks, he ends up getting his face stuck in the record press. That they happen to have on the premise and not in a factory. It was the 70s and no one cared about the veracity of these kinds of things so just go with it. And in the movie, no one seemed to care that there was a man bleeding out all over the place and that said escaped criminal just kinda floated off into the river and no one ever saw him again. Guess he’s dead, moving on.
So here’s where, as the expression goes, De Palma decided to dip his Phantom of the Opera chocolate in Faust‘s peanut butter. I mean, it’s kind of in the name so you knew this was coming but from here things start getting messy storywise. Winslow is basically a monster now. His face was half crushed by a record press and he can’t speak or sing at all. His music is gone and so is his mind so he takes all of this to its logical murderous conclusion. Inviting himself to the shell of what will be The Paradise, Leach sneaks around or scares the shit out anyone in his way and finds himself in the costume area. I don’t know about you but when I’ve had the kind of week where I am permanently hideously disfigured and I’ve had someone with more power than I’ll ever have take everything away from me and make a mockery of it, a little flashy cape and a stylized silver bird mask always makes me feel a bit better. Leach must share my very specific comfort needs because this is exactly what he does before he buries about half a dozen sticks of dynamite in a stage prop during The Juicy Fruits (now the Beach Bums) rehearsal run. After the explosion, Swan is rather annoyed but he quickly gets over that when he is threatened by the mysterious Phantom. Of course, he already knows who it is and instead of threatening him back or begging for his life or anything undignified like that, Swan laughs off his quaint little murder attempt and his petty arson attack that probably just killed a bunch of people in front of him. No, he’s a business man and decides that it would be a shame to waste this opportunity to go into business with the guy that he’s already fucked over so royally. So he talks his way around Winslow, explaining that this doesn’t have to have them working against each other and that they can still open The Paradise with Leach’s music done his way, allowing both men to get what they want. Swan, out of the supposed goodness of his heart(?), even goes so far as to program an electronic device for Winslow so that he can speak and when plugged into the studio equipment, allows him to sing again. So here we have Phantomed up Winslow, finally able to say what he wants and yet Swan already has everything figured out for him. He says that he can still have what he wants but this time, he’ll have to finish his cantata and it will be under contract. And here we can officially wed the two stories because, of course, despite the fact that he already knows the story of Faust and he’s been royally screwed over a few times now, Winslow signs the contract in his own blood.
From here, they start to audition female singers again, this time for real and none other than the lovely Phoenix comes in. She very firmly states that all she wants is to sing. When our initial lackey nearly insults her out of it, she’s on her way out when Winslow insists on letting her sing anyway. Of course, she blows them away and our Phantom has his Christine to write for now. Winslow insists that he will only write for Phoenix and Swan, being the good natured music producer he is, agrees wholeheartedly. He insists that Winslow focus only on writing for his muse and pay no mind to anything more, even going so far as to lock him up so that he has no distractions. Have I mentioned that Winslow really should have the SLOW part of his name emphasized when we talk about his life choices? So as he continues to write while Swan pumps him full of pills to keep him going, our kindly music producer betrays Leach (shocking, I know), by insisting that Phoenix is too perfect for his liking and relegates her to being part of the chorus while hiring a new singer to carry the lead. That singer, played by Gerrit Graham, is the best part of this film by a long shot.
There aren’t words to describe or prepare you for the wonder that is Beef. It’s very clear that De Palma took a decent amount of inspiration for the character from the glam rock side of the music world and if you squint, you can see some pretty Bowie-esque elements mixed in with a bunch of Alice Cooper to really make things interesting. But even that isn’t doing it justice. Beef is a scene stealer, almost always covered in glitter, coded as extremely, fabulously gay, constantly tripping balls and entertaining as fuck. Honestly, every scene that he’s in is better for it and if there’s one thing I will criticize the movie for is the lack of more Beef in it. You have to see it to really get the full experience and just trust me on this one, Beef is an experience. If you see this film for no other reason, see it for Beef.
And if you’re going to see this film for any other reason, see it for Swan. Williams’ portrayal is just so perfect, it really does carry everything in this movie. I don’t want to get into anything more about his story because the later act reveal of what’s really going on with him should be experienced rather than told. It also gives you a real look at just what kind of actor he is. Paul Williams gives Swan an insidious air to him by how callous he can be but he has a kind of warmth to him that makes you want to like him. When he’s playing at being kind, he does it so well that, like Winslow, even when you don’t trust him, you still feel like maybe you should just go along with it anyway. This is also why he’s so believable as a character who could get you or anyone else to sign that contract and make it seem like no big deal.
If you can’t tell, this is a movie with a lot of layers. I’ve only covered about half the plot here and it’s only an hour and a half movie. De Palma really shoved a lot into this one and that alone is worthy of your time. That said, it’s goofy for sure. If you’re not a fan of 70s music, there’s a lot of it so be forewarned. Also, it’s weird. I’m sure that you were able to pick that up from this review but it’s something of a trip that you go on and sometimes, you really do have to wonder if this was meant to be partially filmed in Toon Town. That said, the underlying elements of the plot and the strange filming choices are something to be seen. I think it’s something different and something we don’t hear a lot about these days. Give it a watch, again, if for no other reason than to see Beef in all his glittery magnificent glory.
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