Nefarious double-crossings in the music industry seem rather common. We’ve presumably all read about the many bust-ups, big fights and bursts of damnation that lingered in the studios of our favourite artists, and that is what Phantom of the Paradise, to some degree, wishes to create. Locked in a shed somewhere could be the next great musical artist, disfigured and demented, cracking out a rock opera nobody will hear as his own for he is contracted not to say anything. Still, this exceptionally clear riff on The Phantom of the Opera takes the operatics and plugs “rock” in front of it, in the hopes of creating something marvellous, heavy and fast. Brian De Palma wishes.
His aim is clear, but his outing here leaves much to be desired. Rock opera must depend on good music, and, frankly, I do not believe Phantom of the Paradise has that. Many cult classics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show are perhaps best remembered for their music. Time Warp is an earworm track. It is not good, but it is there. It is always present, festering away in the mind like a parasite. At least it is memorable. There are no tracks or moments in Phantom of the Paradise that have that effect. Thus, it moves to its story and hopes to find something worth latching onto.
There isn’t much to cling to, though. Aside from some exceptional character designs, there isn’t much. Still, a man with a sheet of metal for a helmet and shining silver teeth is always going to stick out like a sore thumb, yet it is the relatively muted tone of De Palma’s direction that fails to bring it into the fold further than acceptably pleasing and slightly interesting. William Finley’s performance as the titular Phantom is, from brief recollections of his forgettable effect on the film, whiney and dull. He is insane, such an accident would apparently turn a musical genius into this depressed lunatic who longs for love and writes mediocre operas. It is the archetype we have come to know and accept, and it is what you do with such a structure that makes or breaks a story. Here, I have no care for Winslow, and although I can appease the ideas presented of a free artist hounded by a conglomerate, I do not find him interesting. The ideas that bubble around him are engaging, but it is hard to conflate a strong message with a weak character.
Should we as a consumerist public be surprised by the cult status Phantom of the Paradise received? It is not exactly clamouring for a mainstream audience, but it is not engaging with those that may find solace or interest in it. Placid and ineffective at times, but with a set and sound design that offers up some exceptional moments of musical madness. Still, it is the appetiser to the fancy main course that would be The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Desert shall be an amalgamation of both, the best bits of Phantom of the Paradise (Jessica Harper) and the finest displays of quality of the Tim Curry classic (the manic moments). Shock Treatment is the happy middle ground. Why bother with anything else? Why indeed.