A Look Back at Brian De Palma's
The Phantom of the Paradise
by Philip Auslander
In Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music (University of Michigan Press, 2006), I argue that glam was the first full-fledged genre of rock music of the 1970s. Around the turn of the decade, performers like Marc Bolan (of T. Rex) and David Bowie sensed the exhaustion of the hippie counterculture and the need to develop new forms of expression for the new decade. Glam rock was thus a product of a transitional cultural moment; as such, it was fraught with ambivalence. Its practitioners wanted to distinguish themselves sharply from their predecessors, but without rejecting everything for which the counterculture had stood.
The same ambivalence is visible in other cultural artifacts of the period, including Brian De Palma’s film The Phantom of the Paradise (1974). It is a glam film, in the sense that it is campy, artificial, self-conscious, theatrical, excessive, way over the top. DePalma’s rather baroque style as a director goes well with the glam sensibility. The Phantom also blends genres, something I consider to be characteristic of glam rock: it is at once a horror film, a parody of horror films, a social satire, and a movie musical. The film acutely reflects the sense within rock culture that the 60s were over. But whereas a film such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) celebrates the glam sensibility as liberatory, De Palma treats glam rock as just another product purveyed by an essentially corrupt music industry that has sold out whatever idealism rock music may have reflected in the 1960s.
Paul Williams as Swan.
The plot of The Phantom of the Paradise draws liberally from the Faust legend, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. It contains visual allusions to Psycho and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as German Expressionism and Frankenstein. There are three principal characters: Swan (played by songwriter and actor Paul Williams), the evil record producer and owner of Death Records, who steals the composer Winslow Leach’s music, has him imprisoned, and tries to kill him; the naïve Leach (played by William Finley) who, as a consequence of a series of incidents engineered by Swan ends up disfigured and incapable of speech, let along song, and becomes the phantom who haunts the Paradise, Swan’s newly opened rock palace (the movie’s working title was The Phantom of the Fillmore); and Phoenix (played by Jessica Harper), the lovely girl singer for whom Leach writes music and who is eventually co-opted and corrupted by Swan. Once Leach has become the Phantom, by stealing a bird-like costume from Swan’s wardrobe department, Swan dupes him into signing away his soul in exchange for the chance to compose for Phoenix. Later, it is revealed that Swan had earlier signed a similar contract with the Devil himself, exchanging his soul for eternal youth. As part of this bargain, a videotaped image of himself ages in his place.
Because Swan and the Phantom (and, eventually, Phoenix) are bound by the same contractual terms, their fates are interlocked and the Phantom cannot die until Swan does. (The bird imagery in the film suggests their entwinement: Swan and Phoenix are named for birds; Winslow Leach makes it an avian troika by taking on the image of a bird as the Phantom and ultimately kills Swan by stabbing him with a bird mask that somewhat resembles the one he wears.) Indeed, the symbiotic relationship that develops between the two men—one representing art, the other commerce—is at the heart of the film. As Swan loses control over his own destiny and starts to age, he, too, appears as a masked figure. In the final, climactic scene of the film, which takes place during a performance that is supposed to double as a presentation of Leach’s opera and a marriage ceremony between Swan and Phoenix, both are unmasked, their disfigurations revealed, and lose their lives.
There is more than a whiff of post-1960s (that is, post counter-cultural) disillusionment in The Phantom of the Paradise. The idea that Swan wants to open a rock palace along the lines of the Fillmores East (in San Francisco) and West (in New York City) is anomalous for 1974, given that both Fillmores closed in 1971. There is, however, no 60s-style idealism in Swan’s desire to revitalize this kind of venue—no sense that art and commerce could hold hands to bring about a better world. The development of the Paradise is a purely cynical, commercial move by a clearly corporate, corrupt, and violent music entrepreneur who profits from the talents of his artists and capitalizes on the gullibility of his audiences. Swan’s body guards are dressed as bikers, perhaps in a reference to the Rolling Stones’ having used Hells Angels for “security” for their concert at Altamont late in 1969, an event often cited as the moment at which the counterculture died. The fact that the three of Swan’s groups that we see in the film—the 50s revival act the Juicy Fruits, the Beach Bums, a truly dreadful surf group, and the goth/glam group the Undead—are all played by the same three actors humorously underlines Swan’s cynicism: it’s always the same thing, just packaged differently.
One does not have to agree with De Palma that rock sold out in the 1970s (though there are many who do) to agree that the 1970s nevertheless saw the exhaustion of the rock counterculture. In the film, one sign of rock’s exhaustion is that Swan’s main act, the Juicy Fruits, is a 50s doo wop revival act; the reference here is clearly to Sha Na Na. In the absence of anything new, the music industry simply recycles the familiar (and whereas Sha Na Na’s appearance at Woodstock in 1969 had been a provocative harbinger of rock’s turn toward overt spectacle, by 1977 the group would become the defanged house band for a syndicated television variety show). Swan recognizes glam rock as the new sound he seeks but, as represented by Beef (played by Gerrit Graham), the performer Swan hires to sing Leach’s music, who is a prissy, klutzy, coke-snorting mama’s boy of questionable talent, glam is just the latest swindle perpetrated on the public by Swan.
William Finley as The Phantom.
Gerrit Graham as Beef.
There is, however, a crucial false note in De Palma’s treatment of popular music in the film, in a sequence in which the Phantom assassinates Beef because he wants only Phoenix to perform his music. The gambit succeeds, as Beef’s death gives Phoenix the opportunity to step forward and become a star. The song she performs is a Carpenters-like ballad quite different in sound from the raucous treatment to which Beef subjected Leach’s music.
As Pauline Kael astutely observes in her review of the film for the New Yorker (November 11, 1974) De Palma’s misstep here is in treating this scene unironically. As a result, the film seems to valorize very middle of the road pop over all other genres of popular music as somehow real, authentic, truly emotive, untainted, not just another fraud perpetrated by the Swans of this world (at least, this is what the hushed response of the audience in the film implies). The resemblance to the Carpenters is not at all coincidental, since Paul Williams, who wrote all the songs in the film, also wrote some of the Carpenters’ biggest hits. I don’t mean to take anything away from Williams, from Jessica Harper (who is a fine singer) or from the Carpenters when I say that to hold up this kind of music as the real thing is not a very satisfying rejoinder to De Palma’s implicit critique of the state of rock in the 1970s. As Kael suggests, it would have been more consistent for De Palma to use this scene to show that Phoenix, like everyone else in the film, despite her apparent innocence, stands to be corrupted by her lust for audience and fame.
De Palma casts a critical eye not only on those who make music but also on their audiences. The two major performance scenes in the film both show orgiastic rock audiences so caught up in the moment that they are completely unaware of the death and mayhem actually taking place in their midst. In the glam rock performance scene, which alludes to both German expressionism and Frankenstein, and expropriates Alice Cooper’s appropriation of horror film imagery, Beef is murdered by the Phantom while on stage, to the audience’s delight. The point of the scene, clearly, is that whereas the performers understand what’s going on, the audience does not, and only becomes more and more excited as people are killed and fire breaks out.
Jessica Harper as Phoenix.
The film’s orgiastic final scene reprises this theme especially chillingly. At Swan’s televised marriage to Phoenix, during which she is to be killed by a hit man he hired in the belief that her death will increase her record sales, the dancing, freaked-out crowd has no idea of what is actually unfolding in their midst. The audience cheers as one man is shot and takes a dying man crowd surfing, while a character identified in the credits as the Rock Freak imitates Winslow Leach’s death throes, displaying no sense that he has any idea of the implications of the movements and gestures he duplicates. This character was played by William Shepard, who is also credited with choreographing the scene. Both Shepard and William Finley, who played the Phantom, had been in the well-known experimental theatre production Dionysus in 69, of which De Palma had made a documentary film. (Another relevant branch in The Phantom’s theatrical genealogy is that Jessica Harper had been an understudy for the Broadway production of Hair.) Dionysus in 69, in keeping with the ethos of the 1960s, made much of breaking down the barriers between audience and performers; here, the sundering of that boundary has ominous implications. The audience is so caught up in the rush of spectacle and activity that it is completely oblivious to the human toll being taken and its own complicity.
Finally, the film’s grim ending underlines another motif in the film: death as a profitable undertaking. This unpleasant thought is perfectly understandable in the context of the early 1970s, when recently deceased rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were as important as living ones and enjoyed lucrative posthumous careers that continue to the present day. But there’s a curious inflection of this theme in the film, which opens with the Juicy Fruits singing a song called “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye.”
The song, a pastiche of the morbid “Last Kiss” genre of rock tunes of the late 1950s and early 1960s, tells of a rock ‘n’ roll star who kills himself “for love,” knowing that his death will force his newest record to the top of the charts and make lots of money, so his sister can have a needed operation. It is implied that, at one time, it may have been possible to see rockers as sacrificial figures giving themselves over to a greater good. For Swan, however, it’s all simply about the bottom line. He sees the death of Beef as good marketing and decides to kill Phoenix for a similar benefit. De Palma seems to be saying that any selflessness and self-sacrifice there may once have been in rock performers’ giving of themselves, which was, in any case, always tainted by the need for an audience, is definitively corrupted, like the music itself, like the audience, by the desire for sensation and profit—despite occasional protestations to the contrary, no one in The Phantom of the Paradise does anything for love.
The author would like to thank Stuart Horodner and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center for inviting me to speak and the Swan Archives for images and information. Please visit this site for more on The Phantom of the Paradise.
Philip Auslander writes on art, music, performance, and culture.