Phantom of the Paradise ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The opening of this film is of a rock and roll band strutting around on stage, singing, dancing, ripping out bras from under women’s tops, pop culture doing its thing. This is followed by a performance of Winslow Leach, the visionary artist co-opting high culture by adapting Faust into a rock opera on his keyboard.

To fulfil his dream of recording and performing this adaptation himself, Winslow needs the attention of mogul and establishment pop-art icon Mr. Swan (is he meant to be an allusion to Andy Warhol and his factory? That kind of thing goes over my head).

Mr. Swan has the purse-strings and the power, but otherwise he stands for everything that Winslow does not, popular entertainment, pandering to the masses, spectacle and extravaganza versus one man, his voice, his keyboards and pure art. Mr. Swan also represents the worst of the counterculture, mindless hippy chicks prostitute themselves for success and hell’s angel like bikie gang members provide his security, all of this on film four or five years after the fall out from Altamont.

Mr. Swan notices Winslow’s performance but decides to appropriate his music while leaving him out in the cold. When Winslow insists that he be recognised for his work and that he be the one to perform it, we discover that Mr. Swan’s influence extends to the corruption of the police as they frame Winslow for drug possession and bundle him off to a prison, also funded by Mr. Swan. Big business corrupting society through and through, stealing what it wants and spitting out true, hardworking artists.

With bloody vengeance in mind, Winslow escapes from prison and seeks to destroy Mr. Swan, but in all his rage and fury he only manages to destroy his face and his voice and ironically is then forced even more so to rely on Mr. Swan to realise his success. And so the theme of the movie goes, the symbiotic relationship between artist and pure art vs. the corporation and mass entertainment with a side bar for the futility of vengeance and jealousy.

The music and costumes are completely ridiculous and all the more fun for it. I don’t if any of this looked cool back in its time, but I get the feeling that it was ridiculous even back then, and that would certainly fit in with the irony of the story. Beef requires a special mention, although I am not even going to try and explain it. The Beef has to be seen to be believed, including death by neon lightning bolt.

Sometimes it feels like Brian De Palma conceived of this film in a haze of mania and someone should have pulled him aside and said, “Hey, this is overblown and stupid, stop now before you make a fool of yourself”, but I am kind of glad they didn’t because although I feel like I should be talking about how silly this whole film is, there is something that made it fun to watch to despite itself.

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