Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

Directed by: Brian DePalma.
Written by: Brian DePalma, music & lyrics by Paul Williams.
Starring: William Finley, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, Paul Williams.


He sold his soul for rock and roll...

About two years ago Edgar Wright hosted the 40th anniversary of Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE to a sold out crown in the massive Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. Most of the surviving cast was there, but star William Finley had recently passed away; so this was also a bit of a memorial for him as well. Since PHANTOM is one of my favorite movies, one that I saw in its brief initial run back in 1974, and several times since then... I was in that packed cinema. Wait, you’ve never heard of the film? That’s great! You have something to look forward to!

Buy the border Brian DePalma is one of my favorite directors, and most people know him from BLOW OUT or maybe CARRIE... but those films were made in the middle of his career. He began making odd arthouse films and comedies... and kind of discovered Robert DeNiro (as well as many other actors who would later become famous). His first successful film was an anti (Viet Nam) war comedy starring Robert DeNiro, Gerrit Graham, and Jon Warden called GREETINGS (1968) about three friends who get their draft notices at the same time and each figures out a way to avoid being sent to Viet Nam where they will likely return in a body bag. It’s kind of a series of skits with these three characters that lampoons the time period and the social turmoil in the United States surrounding the war. Jon Warden was the star, with DeNiro and Graham as his sidekicks, and by the end of the film DeNiro is the only one who gets sent to Viet Nam... to return in the sequel HI MOM! (Introducing Charles Durning) which looks at the early 70s, and everything from Organic Food to the Black Power Movement (“Be Black Baby!”).

After a string of successful comedies, they gave DePalma a comedy studio film starring Orson Welles and The Smothers Brothers... which flopped. DePalma went back to indie films and played around with Hitchcock and horror (he had previously done a comedy with Hitchcock overtones called MURDER ALA MOD, starring William Finley... who was a member of his stock company of actors).



His brilliant Hitchcockian horror flick SISTERS was a big hit (I have the Critereon edition) and his next film was going to be called PHANTOM OF THE FILMORE, starring Finley in a mash up of every classic horror movie ever made, plus a satire of the music industry. After writing the script, he approached Paul Williams to write the music figuring he’d start at the top (Williams had written a string of hits at this point) but to his surprise this was *exactly* what Williams was looking for, When you’ve written a string of hit pop songs, you want to try the exact opposite. A rock opera that makes fun of the music biz? Sign him up! Williams also ended up playing the villain, Swan, who has made a little deal with the Devil to look forever young and be incredibly successful. Somewhere along the way, promoter Bill Graham had a lawyer inform them that they couldn’t use the name of his Filmore club, and the film became PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.

This film came *before* ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and just about everyone believes it’s better... but it flopped, as did ROCKY HORROR. The difference? ROCKY HORROR’s distrib played it at midnight shows where it became the phenomenon that it is today. PHANTOM was distributed by 20th Century Fox and they didn’t even know what a midnight show was! So everybody was doing the Time Warp Again and nobody remembered PHANTOM. Well, that’s not exactly true. Those who had seen it the first time it came out kept it alive in revival houses where the introduced their friends to the film. I know I dragged friends to it whenever it played in Berkeley. I had the soundtrack on vinyl and played it frequently, and can sing along with every song if required. I also probably know every line of dialogue. Too bad they didn’t do midnight shows back in the day because then *everybody* would know about this film rather than ROCKY HORROR (though we wouldn’t know about Tim Curry, so maybe it’s good things turned out as they did). But what about the story?

Well the story is about a very talented artist who gets ripped off by The Man... something that screenwriters can identify with.

Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a struggling composer working on a rock opera version of Faust who manages to get a gig playing music between shows (when people are leaving the venue, glorified Muzak) for the multi platinum 50's nostalgia band The Juicy Fruits. Mysterious music producer Swan (Paul Williams) who represents the Fruits is about to open a new rock venue and is looking for a new sound... and when he hears Winslow’s music he thinks this may be it. He orders his tubby underling Philbin (the amazing George Memoli, who is also in Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS, ROCKY, Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR and a bunch of other great 70s stuff) to grab the music and ditch Winslow. Buy the border After “submitting his music to Swan” through Philbin and not hearing back, he tries Swan’s office building, where he’s on a “beat up on sight” list, and after recovering tries Swan’s mansion where he discovers a long line of female singers practicing one of his songs. The best of the bunch is the beautiful and talented Phoenix (introducing Jessica Harper) and Winslow learns from her that Swan has stolen his music, claimed it as his own, and is auditioning females singers for the opening of the Paradise Club. Winslow tries to see Swan (by dressing up as a female singer) and gets beaten up and dumped on the street, where a pair of cops plant some heroin in his purse and arrest him.

In Sing Sing Prison (everything in this film is musical) Winslow is volunteered against his will for a medical experiment funded by Swan’s company where they extract every tooth in your mouth and replace it with stainless steel.

Winslow escapes prison, discovers that the Juicy Fruits have recorded an album of his music done 50's style, goes to destroy all of the vinyl record at Swan’s factory... but trips and his head lands in the record press... smashing his face and leaving the offensive album permanently engraved in his skin.

After recovering, Winslow goes to the Paradise Club where the Fruits are rehearsing for opening night (as a new group: the Beach Bums, doing early 60s style music)... and dons a costume and mask from the costume storage room (becoming The Phantom) before planting a bomb that injures the Fruits and stopping them from desecrating his music. Buy the border Winslow is captured by Swan, who locks him away to complete the rock opera for Phoenix to sing... except Swan has no intention of having Phoenix open the club, she’s way too wholesome. And when Winslow has finished his rock opera? Swan walls him into the room faster than you can say Poe’s Cask Of Amontillado.

So Swan has to find a new opening night act for the Paradise in a great *one shot* audition scene that features a dozen music acts so unbelievable that they’re believable... and settles on glam rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham, stealing whatever movie he is cast in). One of the great things about this film, which came up in the panel discussion afterwards, is how well it *predicts* new music trends and even specific bands. It’s kind of like NETWORK in that regard, you see it now and think they are making fun of KISS when they use the Juicy Fruit band members dressed in black with patterns painted on their faces in black and white... but KISS didn’t even exist when this film was made! Though this is a satire of the music business, it’s crazy creations would eventually come true! Buy the border On opening night for the Paradise, Winslow as the Phantom breaks out and threatens Beef, telling him that only Phoenix can sing his songs, and anyone else who tries dies. Beef doesn’t want to go on, Philbin insists... and in the middle of Beef’s CALIGARI style opening number the Phantom zips a neon lightning bolt down at Beef, electrocutes him, and Beef fries on stage... while the audience calls for an encore. Swan has Phoenix go out and sing to calm the crowd... and she’s a massive hit!





Realizing it will take something really amazing to top a rock star burning alive on stage, Swan decides he will *marry* Phoenix on stage, and then have a sniper kill her dead. That’s entertainment! Now Winslow/Phantom must stop this from happening, even though he knows that the woman he loves has willingly agreed to marry Swan in exchange for stardom. No matter what happens, things will not end happily ever after.

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After the film, the panel spent about an hour talking about the making of the film (in Dallas Texas standing in for New York City) where their production designer Jack Fisk (his first film) had an assistant named Sissy Spacek who would later star in the movie CARRIE for DePalma after starring in some film called BADLANDS. Jack and Sissy married and are still together, and I bumped into them and chatted at some low rent Oscar party that made the mistake of inviting me. Jack and Sissy were not on the panel, but hammy GerritGraham, still hot Jessica Harper, Paul Williams, Juicy Fruits Harold Oblong and Jeffrey Comanor (who was carried onto stage, then got up and jogged around a little), plus the film’s editor Paul Hirsch, who learned how to edit films with DePalma who then introduced him to his Hollywood Brats friends where Lucas hired him to edit STAR WARS and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and he later edited MISSION IMPOSSIBLE GHOST PROTOCOL and SOURCE CODE and RAY and a zillion other big films, and William Finley’s widow Susan joined the panel later (she’s in the movie as an extra!). The always amazing Edgar Wright moderated. They had all kinds of great stories about making the film, and Williams talked about making this crazy decision to write music which was the opposite of what he was known for while trashing the industry he was a part of.

It was an amazing night, and the film is just as funny as the day it was made. A real gem waiting to be discovered by any of you who haven’t seen it yet. The songs have great pop hooks and subversive lyrics... you’ll be humming them later. Because it’s DePalma it is filled with all kinds of crazy film experiments and homages, including a recreation of the opening scene from TOUCH OF EVIL as a musical number with the Beach Bums band!



The Panel Discussion (someone videoed it!)

Bill

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