Phantom of the Paradise ★★★★½

I'd never realized this before, but when Phoenix sings "Old Souls" and becomes an instant sensation, she's exactly like Albuquerque singing "It Don't Worry Me" at the end of Nashville, which was released some eight months later. In both cases, a star is murdered onstage mid-performance, and these relative nobodies are sent out to pacify the audience. These scenes draw on a show biz movie cliché at least as old as 42nd Street—"You're going out a youngster but you've got to come back a star!"—though I think both De Palma and Altman (the latter working with Joan Tewkesbury) have something more cynical, more incisive in mind.

Like Nashville, Phantom is a ruthless satire of the music industry whose political scope nonetheless extends far beyond its putative subject matter. Go another level down from the music, and these two movies become more broadly about power and art (or money and art, same thing)—about all the pain, compromise, and hypocrisy their relationship entails. Altman has a bit more sympathy for his caricatures, I think; even Haven Hamilton eventually gets his moment of grace. But De Palma, well, he's De Palma, and he indulges all his giddy Grand Guignol impulses with operatic grandeur and a student radical's rage.

No one gets off easy in this movie. Winslow, both pre- and post-mutilation, is fatally naïve; Phoenix is naïve, then corrupted; and Swan, of course, is the corrupter, exerting infinite power to ruin everything beautiful and pure. Even we aren't safe. As one of the friends I was watching it with pithily observed, "[De Palma] doesn't care much for people who go to concerts." Indeed, the in-film audience is veritably Dionysian, dancing and chanting no matter how real the onstage violence becomes.

Music is not an absolute good here. I love Paul Williams' songs, but they're malignant in a way only catchy pop music can be. Anything sublime about them gets contaminated by the time they're performed in the Paradise's windowless panopticon. Nashville may skewer bicentennial America's kitsch and complacency, but at least it lets it in some sunlight now and then. Phantom of the Paradise is like closed-circuit TV from hell, and for my money that makes it the best kind of horror movie. No one gets out of the Paradise alive, and that includes us.