Phantom of the Paradise (Scream Factory Blu-ray) | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Phantom Of The Paradise Blu-ray

Studio: Scream Factory

Sep 08, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

It’s hard to imagine—40 years later—what might have been going through distributors’ heads as they engaged in a heated bidding war for Brian De Palma’s independently-financed, totally nutso rock musical Phantom of the Paradise. Twentieth Century Fox won out, paying a (then) record-breaking $2 million dollars for the film’s rights. The film hit theaters and was a resounding flop. (To add insult to injury, Fox also had to settle with Universal over the movie’s surface similarities to Phantom of the Opera.) The film not only failed to court the young rock-and-roll audience Fox purportedly hoped to haul in, but barely rivaled the success that The Rocky Horror Picture Show—produced by Fox less than a year later—found on the midnight circuit. De Palma, of course, continued on to bigger and better things, while Phantom languished in cult film circles as something akin to Rocky Horror’s lesser-seen little cousin.

That’s not the fault of Phantom being a bad film; its rabid fans certainly will argue otherwise, and both the music and De Palma’s creative direction make sure the film isn’t forgettable. But compared to Rocky Horror—it’s very hard not to—Phantom of the Paradise lacks clarity in its vision. Rocky shot for a low-budget, classical b-movie aesthetic, all the way down to its shoddy, theatrical sets and purposefully hammy performances. Meanwhile the bad acting in Phantom just feels, well, bad—rather than a winking bad. And the direction works in richly-orchestrated set pieces and cutting-edge techniques such as split screen, but will cut to a bafflingly goofy Benny Hill-speed chase scene. And not only is it difficult to discern what effect Phantom is going for in any given moment, but sometimes you can’t even tell what’s going on. The story is a convoluted, herky-jerky mess, pulling elements from Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and Dorian Gray and tying them together with abrupt and confusing exposition.

To roughly summarize, the film centers around Swan (Paul Williams), a devilish, Phil Spector-esque record producer who seems to hold sway over the entirety of pop music fandom. At a talent search he discovers Winslow Leach, a brilliant but totally unmarketable singer-songwriter. Swan steals Leach’s music; while attempting to get credit for his work, Leach is chased out of Swan’s studio and horribly disfigured in a freak record-pressing accident. Leach dons a chrome helmet and becomes the phantom of The Paradise—Swan’s fancy theatrical venue—sabotaging Swan’s efforts to find his next great musical act.

While Phantom of the Paradise is a mess, it’s an extremely interesting mess. Even in this silly flick it’s hard to miss that there’s a skilled director is at work behind the camera. But even more memorable than the direction is the soundtrack. Phantom of the Paradise received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song Score, but lost to Nelson Riddle’s soundtrack for the Robert Redford-starring The Great Gatsby. All words and music were composed by Paul Williams, who plays Swan in the film and actually penned several pop hits (including “We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters, Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born)”—and “The Rainbow Connection” (!?) from The Muppet Movie.) In particular, the numbers sung by Jessica Harper—who plays Swan’s protégé, Phoenix, and would be seen later starring in Suspiria—are memorable for her strong performance style, along with the ‘50s throwback rock songs performed in the film by The Juicy Fruits. On the other hand, one particular song – “Life At Last!” – sung in the film by glam rock caricature Beef, hasn’t aged very well, as much the fault of the cringe-worthy stereotype played by actor Gerritt Graham as just being a lousy musical number.

As far as the blu-ray goes, Scream Factory has given Phantom of the Paradise an absolutely royal treatment. The film itself looks and sounds spectacular; the movie boasts a dizzying color palette, which really pops out in this new HD transfer. There’s a ridiculous number of extra features spread across the package’s two discs, including two brand new audio commentaries and interviews with De Palma, Williams, and others. There are also a handful of features carried over from old editions, including a Paul Williams interview moderated by Guillermo Del Toro, 40 minutes of alternate takes, trailers, galleries, outtakes, and a 50-minute behind-the-scenes documentary. In all, there are hours and hours of extras to sift through. Scream Factory continues to give Criterion a run for their money, heaping seemingly-endless amounts of love on cult cinema with these eccentric genre releases in robust special editions. Phantom of Paradise is no exception, and it’s hard to imagine the film’s fans being able to ask for much more than what’s included here.

Author rating: 7/10

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