Phantom of the Paradise (1974) Revisit

I have loved this film since I saw it in December of 1974 at the UA Theater in Pasadena, with my friend Art Franz. We were both movie buffs and the rock score and theatrical aspects of the trailer and the poster, lured us in with ease. I have since watched it a dozen times at minimum, including a screening in Los Angeles at the Silent Movie Theater in 2012.  Paul Williams, the star and songwriter of the film, made an appearance at that show. I found a notice of that show on the website of “The Swan Archives“. 

You can read my own notes on this event here. It was a wonderful evening that reminded me of how much I love this film. So it is a pleasure to report that I had another great experience with Phantom, this time as a result of the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin. 

The event on Monday night was billed as a special screening, but it was not clear what was going to be special about it. As far as I’m concerned, anytime you can see a movie you love in a theater, it is a special event, so I was just happy to get a ticket and attend. It turned out to be special for two great reasons. The screening was proceeded by a lecture from the Principal Archivist of the “Swan Archives”. The discussion focused on the need for a re-mastered version of the film to be released on home media. The Archivist, Ari Kahan, has devoted much personal time and energy to keeping Swan’s name alive., in particular by nurturing this film.

During the presentation, there were extensive demonstrations of changes that had to be made to the original release, due to an agreement by 20th Century Fox, and the representatives of Led Zeppelin. The band used the name “Swan Song” for their publishing rights, and to avoid a legal battle, some compromises were made to the film at the time of it’s release.  Those included extensive use of floating matts in the film, to cover up references to “Swan Song” that could be construed as copyright infringement.  Of course that was a ridiculous mistake, and the shaky matts were very noticeable in the power point presentation. Additional flaws have to do with color correction and saturation that undermine many of the scenes in the film.

Finally, there is the issue of the title, which at one point would have been simply “Phantom”, but someone was concerned with confusing the film with the comic book character (this was well before the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical). “of the Paradise” was an addition that referred to the theater that Swan had constructed to be his ultimate concert venue, much like the Fillmore East or West of the day. The original elements had to be recreated since the negative has the matts on it, and the editing had to be cleaned up as well. A remastered version has been created with the help of the original editor, Paul Hirsh, one of the crew who turned the original “Star Wars” into a success.  The films writer and director Brian DePalma, has been supportive of this restoration effort, and the current owners of the film rights would be willing to follow through, if the now defunct Led Zeppelin, would release the studio from their agreement. Even after a lengthy appeal, supported by a variety of film and music notables, the answer was no. So a remastered version of the film will not be coming to you anytime soon.

However, that doesn’t mean that remastered version will never be seen by anyone. It appears that the screening on Monday night had all of the corrections that had been discussed in the lecture. The copy screened for us was the version that Kahan, DePalma, Edgar Wright, Paul Williams and a variety of others would like us to have. It was well worth the effort. I did not get a chance to speak with the Archivist as we left, he was chatting with some others, but I did shout out a thank you and give him a thumbs up.  

The Film  

If you have never seen “The Phantom of the Paradise” let’s just say it is a version of Faust and Phantom of the Opera, set in the rock world of the early 1970s. Ambitious composer Winslow Leach, has his music stolen from him and in a series of complications, is disfigured and now hunts down his tormentors in the Rock and Roll Concert Palace called “The Paradise”. Winslow is played with heart breaking sincerity by  the late William Finley, probably most recognizable from DePalma’s film “Sisters”.  His antagonist is simply known as “Swan”, a musical producer who seems to have become a minion of evil, trading success for souls.

Swan is played by Paul Williams, who will be instantly recognizable to anyone over the age of fifty, but might be a new face to those millennials and Gen Z audience members, discovering the film for the first time. While Williams is terrific in the role, sufficiently  charming and repellant simultaneously,  it is his musical talent that makes the greatest impact on the film. He composed the score and the songs used in the film and they are well crafted, satirical, and very entertaining. The fictitious band “The Juicy Fruits” do “Goodbye Eddie” and “Upholstery” in do wop and surf styles, mining the then current nostalgia wave. Fans of the Broadway Musical that came later, will probably appreciate “Special to Me” and “Old Souls” performed by ingenue Phoenix, played and sung by Jessica Harper. Those moments foreshadow “Think of Me” and “I Remember” from the Broadway show. 

“The Juicy Fruits” and “The Undead” are two bands that are background characters in the story, the same actors portray both bands and they get to do some funny satire in the opening song, and a great deal of stage theatrics in the debut of “Faust” on the Paradise stage. One of whom, Peter Ebling billed as Harold Oblong, also did the choreography. The stage sequence and makeup for the song “Somebody Super Like You” is a blast, reminiscent of Alice Cooper and Kiss.  All of that gets shuttled aside when Beef makes his appearance. The Glam/Metal rocker is played by Gerrit Graham, and he practically steals the movie. He is supremely confident at times, and manically insecure and fearful at other moments. He has some of the best comic moments of the film and he gets maximum milege out of them.

I smiled with delight as the movie opened, and I nodded my approval at the altered titles which indicated that we were getting the remastered version of the films. I had to stop myself from singing along and humming the melodies, so as not to disturb the other members of the audience, but it was an emotionally satisfying 90 minutes and I am pleased to share what I can of it with you. 

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