A man sells his soul to rock and roll — literally — in this fresh spin on the old story about a composer who kills anyone that threatens the ingénue he adores.
This version of the story is the first to add rock music (eat your heart out, Andrew Lloyd Webber) and it turns out to be a good fit for the melodrama. The film opens with young musicians auditioning for famed music producer, Swan. He is not a nice guy. Let’s be clear, here — this film posits that record producers are one step up from Satan. Swan actually knows the Devil, since he already has him under contract. Turns out, Swan stays young thanks to a deal with the horned one, though he must keep an oil painting of himself from harm, as it ages for him (this film actually merges “The Phantom of the Opera” story with the “Picture of Dorian Gray”).
Swan auditions Winslow Leach and loves the music, but decides to get someone else to sing it. He steals Winslow’s tunes and tries them out on his own house band, The Juicy Fruits. They turn out to be a 1950s nostalgia style trio. Their greased up hair and doo-wop sound isn’t the best fit for the tunes, so they must go.
Meanwhile, Winslow gets wind of Swan’s theft and tries to get in to see him. Swan’s goons beat the snot out of him, but Winslow retaliates by breaking into Swan’s record company, where he promptly inserts his head into a record press and is rewarded with a horribly scarred countenance that also bears Swan’s record label logo.
Swan eventually makes a deal with Winslow to write a rock opera for the theater. Winslow thinks he is writing for a young lady named Phoenix, but Swan has actually hired a David Bowie-styled performer named Beef. Winslow, now sporting a birdlike helmet and leather get up to hide his scars, takes this deception personally and kills Beef on opening night with a neon lightning bolt stage prop. Swan sees that the homicide will draw in business and goes on with the show, but Winslow is now in full Phantom mode and plans to break their contract by taking Swan down.
This is my favorite take on the Phantom story, though the Hammer Studios version had its merits. The reason this one works so well is the frenetic pacing and inventive camerawork of a young Brian de Palma (two films away from making “Carrie”). He uses all manner of film tricks to move this story along. You get split screen scenes , speeded up pantomime and a lot of crane shots. Did I mention birds? Every image here is birdlike, so the crane shots are appropriate. Then again, he also names the major characters after birds, so it isn’t exactly well disguised symbolism.
The cast is also on board and offer up full-blown performances. Paul Williams plays the evil Swan and also wrote all of the film’s music. Jessica Harper (“Suspiria”) is also on hand as Phoenix, and she does a good job of showing how fast innocence can be corrupted by greed. William Finley is fine as Winslow but it is a shame that this character actor (who passed two years ago) never got his due.
The real star here is Gerrit Graham, as Beef. Though his character only appears in one-third of the film, he manages to take over the film whenever he’s on screen. He also manages to craft two characters by making Beef’s on-stage persona grand and commanding, while the off stage version is a mousey, yellow-bellied whiner.
Though this is rated PG, the tone is more “R” and will go over the heads of most kids anyway. Definitely an adult treat that somehow got in the younger viewer’s section.
This also works as a serious swipe at the business of music. The producer is the bad guy and his methods include using drugs to keep the talent happy, if not sedated, and a private security team that deals with groupies and unwanted fans with brutal efficiency. De Palma seems to be pretty sharp here, as some of these practices have come to the light — in the film industry.
1974, rated PG.
“The karma around here is so thick, you need an aqualung to breathe.”
“We’re not looking for singers. We’re looking for screamers.”
“An assassination on live television, coast to coast. That is entertainment.”