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Once Upon a Time in Film Scoring
The Phantom of the Paradise

Image © Nathan Alan Schwartz

Image © Nathan Alan Schwartz



William Finley and Paul Williams in Brian De Palma's  Phantom of the Paradise  (Image © 20th Century Fox) 

William Finley and Paul Williams in Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (Image © 20th Century Fox) 

Brian’s De Palma’s music-laden cult classic Phantom of the Paradise (1974) provides a zany look at how the music business operates. It also is an often hilarious spin on the Faust legend and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. For people who have never seen the film, I describe it as “Phantom-meets-Faust-meets-rock-two-years-before-Rocky Horror.”

The film features plenty of trademarks that would later define De Palma’s cinematic style—split-screen, intricately choreographed sequences, optical effects—but the standout is its inspired soundtrack, composed by Paul Williams.

Those born after the mid-1980s may recognize Paul Williams for his cameo in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver as the arms salesman known as “the Butcher.” But for everyone else, Williams remains a powerhouse songwriter, especially during his peak period in the 1970s. Composing songs that were later performed by Three Dog Night (“Old Fashioned Love Song”), the Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays”), and Kermit the Frog (“Rainbow Connection”). He also wrote the Academy-award nominated song “Evergreen” from A Star is Born. Radio, film, and television were saturated with his songs.

Despite his short stature and outward appearance, Williams defied the typical notion of what constituted a music star in that era. He even had prominent roles in Smokey and the Bandit and other films, but is most remembered for his role as Swan in The Phantom of the Paradise. His original soundtrack also received an Academy Award nomination in 1974.

In the film, Swan is a famous record producer, the progenitor of the most popular music trends. He is presented as god-like, where his stamp of approval is the Midas Touch of the music business. At the beginning of the film Swan is searching for “the new sound”. Although he has successfully revived the nostalgic “bubblegum pop” sound of the 1950s with the group The Juicy Fruits, the genre is beginning to grow stagnant. The Juicy Fruits’ hit song “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye”, combines group harmonies reminiscent of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a spoken word verse commonly seen in The Paris Sisters and Elvis Presley songs, and tragic lyrics that are not a far cry from “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers.   

After a Juicy Fruits performance, an unknown composer named Winslow Leach begins playing a selection from his cantata based on Faust. Swan interrupts his assistant Philbin mid-speech and listens to Winslow’s song. He declares that’s the sound he’s been after—but Winslow has to go. Winslow is socially awkward and gangly, a poor man’s Warren Zevon with a voice resembling a warped record played back at the wrong speed.

Philbin is able to convince Winslow to give them his cantata score. He says that Swan will get in touch with him, but Winslow hears nothing. He goes to Swan’s Death Records—originally Swan Song Records, but Led Zeppelin’s record label sued the production, so De Palma had to change the name by inserting mattes into shots using optical effects—but he’s kicked out by security.

What follows is Winslow’s attempt to steal his music back, resulting in nearly fatal consequences. He is framed and arrested; sent to—and escapes from—“Sing Sing Prison”; breaks into one of Swan’s record processing plants; and has his face mutilated in a record pressing machine.

These sequences are accompanied by incidental music that befits the slapstick presentation of these events. There is even a short song, not included on the released soundtrack, called  “Meet the Devil.” As Winslow approaches Swan’s mansion with a dopey determined look on his face, the song gives a wink and a nudge that Swan may be more than he appears.

With Winslow believed to be dead, Swan continues reworking Winslow’s cantata to have it open his new music venue, The Paradise. But Winslow begins terrorizing the place upon seeing his songs bastardized, including one being rewritten in the style of The Beach Boys, the Juicy Fruits now reformed as the Beach Bums.

Swan has no choice but to trick Winslow into a “life contract” to rewrite the cantata for him. He promises Winslow that the songs will be performed the way Winslow wants it and also feature Phoenix (Jessica Harper), the film’s love interest, as the main vocalist.

There is a humorous scene where Swan creates a singing voice for Winslow, since he’s nearly lost his ability to speak. The irony is that as Swan adjusts many soundboard knobs, giving Winslow Paul Williams’ voice.

But Swan has other plans. As Winslow toils away, Swan continues to enact his vision of The Paradise. He steals the rest of Winslow’s rewritten cantata, seals him in a room, and continues arranging the songs. In a humorous scene, Swan auditions different performers utilizing different music genres, including Folk and Gospel. They appear in rooms that Swan can look into through a one-way mirror. He settles on a hard rock style as performed by Beef and the Undeads (the latest iteration of the Juicy Fruits) that serves as a precursor to heavy metal. Rumor has it that even Kiss borrowed their signature face-painted look from the Undeads.

But Winslow escapes and threatens that if anyone other than Phoenix performs his songs, they will die. After a tragic accident, Phoenix must calm the riled crowd with a ballad called “Old Souls,” her vocals a mixture of Karen Carpenter’s sweetness and Carly Simon’s pop-rock sensibilities.

During the film’s finale, the music matches the Paradise’s frenzied crowd. The occasion essentially turns into a Dionysian bacchanal in the guise of the drug-infused ’60s and ’70s Hippie movement. The incidental music features drumming rhythms similar to The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil and electric piano. As the scene erupts in disorder, the soundtrack moves to the forefront of the mix, increasing in volume until it overpowers all other sounds.

The music transitions into the closing credits song, “The Hell of It,” which perfectly sums up De Palma’s and Williams’ faustian vision for Phantom of the Paradise: “Tho’ your music lingers on / all of us are glad you’re gone / If I could live my life half as worthlessly as you / I’m convinced that I’d wind up burning too.”

Even though the film’s tone can be wildly uneven—is it a musical, a comedy, a horror film?—the music perfectly matches it with a satirical quality that represents and mocks music trends at the same time. Given how intelligently Williams and De Palma weave together repurposed story elements and the soundtrack, Phantom of the Paradise remains a fun film—more sophisticated and entertaining than the more popular Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Sean Woodard is a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University and Chapman University.  Focusing on a wide variety of interests, Sean’s fiction, film criticism, and other writing have been featured in Los Angeles Review of Books, Found Polaroids, and Los Angeles Magazine, among other publications. He is a journalist for Addiction Now and serves on the Film Department for Drunk Monkeys. A native of Visalia, CA, he now resides in Orange County.