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This is Music Week at Watch This Now. We’ll be bringing you the best musicals, music docs, performance films and music biopics available instantly online.
Today marks the first day of principal photography on Edgar Wright’s new film, the adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World, so in honor of that I’m kicking of Watch This Now Music Week with one of his favorite films, and one that he introduced to me.
It’s hard to imagine that the first time I saw Phantom of the Paradise, a bizarre comedic musical horror take on Faust, was at Edgar’s Wright Stuff festival at the New Beverly. Since then I’ve seen the movie a dozen times, trawled the internet for rare Japanese Phantom memorabilia, discussed making a Winslow Leech Halloween costume and had as my social media picture a shot of me with the Phantom’s helmet on my head. I fell in love with this movie, and I think you might do the same.
Swan is the mysterious impresario behind a rock and roll empire. He makes and breaks new acts, and the nation looks to him for the latest sounds in music. He’s getting ready to open his utopian rock theater, The Paradise, and he needs the perfect show for it. Enter Winslow Leech, a dweeby composer doing a contemporary version of Faust. Swan steals his music and frames Leech, sending him to prison. In jail Leech hears a shitty pop version of his music on the radio, freaks out, escapes and seemingly gets killed trying to trash Swan’s record press. But in reality he’s been terribly disfigured, and he begins haunting The Paradise in a completely awesome superhero/bondage suit with a birdlike helmet.
But Swan is a manipulator extraordinaire, and soon he has Leech under his sway again, locked up in a small room, finishing up Faust. Meanwhile Swan is making the moves on Pheonix, the beautiful young singer with whom Leech has fallen in love. And then there’s the devil.
Phantom is brilliant. And it’s weird. It’s definitely not the kind of movie that would ever get made outside of the 70s, especially because it’s tonally all over the place – the film veers wildly from slapstick to melancholy to straight up horror to pathos. And yet every time the movie seems like it might go off the rails and become a disaster, De Palma saves it.
The film’s music is courtesy of Paul Williams, aka the guy who was on The Muppet Show a bunch and who wrote The Rainbow Connection for Kermit. He also stars as the evil Swan, and it’s a completely inspired choice; tiny and childlike, Williams manages to also be completely creepy. And having him write the music for the film (all of which is more or less diegetic – nobody breaks into song, and all the songs, even the ones that play over montages and stuff, are from Winslow’s Faust) was a great choice as well. Williams writes music much more in the vein of soft rock – he composed for The Carpenters, for instance – and that means instead of the heavy metal you might expect from a film like this, you end up with some really pretty music.
The beautiful Jessica Harper (Suspiria) is terrific as Pheonix, and the rarely-working William Finley pulls off an impressive switch up as Leech/The Phantom, but my favorite actor in the whole film has to be Gerrit Graham, playing the flamingly gay glam rocker Beef. He’s absolutely ridiculous, completely hilarious, and sings one of my favorite songs in the film (Life At Last, the performance of which includes a ludicrous, KISS meets Alice Cooper grand guignol stage show).
Phantom works as satire, as musical, as a revenge story, as a tragedy and as a silly comedy. And as a De Palma movie, it even has Hitchcock homages (there’s a great Psycho shower scene). This is the kind of movie that defines cult: seen by few, but utterly beloved by every single one of them. It’s a film packed with amazing quotable lines, and knowing them will make you part of a special secret elite. Anybody who comes up to me and says ‘I know drug real from real real!’ is immediately my friend. Never before has the title ‘Watch This Now’ been more of a command.
Click here to watch Phantom of the Paradise through Netflix.