The great Brian De Palma has always been a director that defies convention. He’s an outsider that managed to get into the Hollywood system and subvert it. In the early days his love of the thriller led to him being accused of ‘borrowing liberally’ from Alfred Hitchcock. However, this ‘Hitchmock’ label is pretty unfair – sure he’s a masterful thriller director, but he has also dabbled in many other genres, delivering some pretty great films in the process. Who else but De Palma would have the brass cojones to make a musical-comedy-thriller based on Phantom of the Opera, Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray?
1974’s Phantom of the Paradise attacks the entertainment industry with ferocity. The film’s phantom is Winslow Leach (William Finley), singer-songwriter (in the ‘70s Billy Joel/Albert Hammond mould) who is screwed-over by a powerful producer Swan (Paul Williams). Imprisoned and deformed in a freak record printing press accident (!) Leach tries to take revenge on Swan, but he ultimately makes a deal with him so that he can bring a pop-musical version of Faust to the stage. Little does Leach know, that making a deal with Swan is like making a deal with the devil – and the devil never plays fair.
Great tunes, camp performances and De Palma’s trademark visual flare means that Phantom of the Paradise has become a camp classic over time. It was probably a masterstroke for De Palma to hire Paul Williams to play Swan and pen the songs. Williams has the impish charisma to play the satantic record executive, while his career as a songwriter (for the likes of The Carpenters and Barbra Streisand) means that he’s able to subvert and mock the music that was his bread and butter.
Phantom of the Paradise is Brian De Palma firing on all-cylinders. It has that devil-may-care attitude (literally) only a auteur-director in the 1970s could have. He openly mocks the entertainment industry and how they take advantage of the artist, not caring who they hurt in an attempt to make a quick buck. De Palma is using Hollywood’s own mouth to bite the hand that feeds him.
Bold and ballsy, Phantom of the Paradise is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously while taking a swipe at the business side of show business. It’s over the top, but it’s over the top in that Brian De Palma way – which is never a bad thing.