Retro Review: Phantom of the Paradise on Blu-Ray

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POTPBRCover72dpiShout Factory continues its tradition of re-packaging an eclectic inventory of cult classics with a 40th Anniversary edition of Phantom of the Paradise, complete with an extensive collection of special features.

Phantom of the Paradise is one of those cult classics that is embraced by a small-but-fervent following, and this two-disc package is sure to appeal to them. I’ve been a part of that small-but-fervent following since seeing the film in 1975. The film, a clever mash-up of The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Faust with bits of Poe tossed in, is at once a goofy horror-comedy-musical and a cautionary tale about the dangers of artistic compromise, with a core of adolescent angst that expresses itself as a doomed love story. The inspiration for the film was, according to the Swan Archives website, “Brian De Palma’s sad experience in 1969 hearing a Beatles song played as muzak in an elevator, and realizing that everything that’s beautiful can be transformed by corporate America into garbage for the sake of a dollar.” This simple truth is presented in horror-allegory form to great effect.

When the film opens, we’re introduced to Swan (Paul Williams, who also wrote all of the songs in the film) as a man in the shadows who is the most powerful man in the music industry, a Svengali who buys and sells people and controls not only careers but musical trends. After pioneering ’50s nostalgia with “The Juicy Fruits,” he’s looking for the Next Big Thing with which to open his new venue, the Paradise, a rock palace inspired by the legendary Fillmore. When he hears mild-mannered composer Winslow Leach (William Finley) sing his rock canata version of Faust, he realizes he’s found what he’s looking for. In short order, he steals the music and has Leach framed for drug-dealing and thrown into Sing Sing, but not before Leach meets and falls for sweet young singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper). Enraged at hearing a pop version of his music on the prison radio, Leach escapes, attempts to destroy Swan’s record company, and is seemingly fatally injured in a bizarre accident before falling into the harbor. Presumed dead, Winslow, horrifically disfigured, sneaks into the Paradise and wages war on Swan. When he confronts Swan directly, Swan talks him into re-writing his cantata to feature the talented Phoenix in order to keep him out of the way. Swan casts the bizarre Beef (Gerrit Graham), a shrieking glam-rock cartoon, in the lead role, burying Phoenix in the chorus. When Leach discovers the betrayal, he goes on a murderous rampage before discovering the true depths of the evil in which he is inextricably entwined.

Phoenix (Jessica Harper) wins over the audience and becomes a star.
Phoenix (Jessica Harper) wins over the audience and becomes a star.

The movie looks great, a beautiful high-def transfer that also sounds great from the first words of Rod Serling’s opening narration to the last notes of “The Hell of It.” The package, featuring newly-commissioned cover art that perfectly captures the ’70s fever-dream tone of the film, includes two discs; a Blu-Ray that carries the film, two audio commentary tracks, and three interviews; and a DVD containing four more interviews, a documentary on the making of the film, alternate takes of several scenes, the original theatrical trailer, TV and radio spots, a photo gallery, and a segment showing the before-and-after alterations made to the film when Led Zepplin’s manager threatened to sue the producers.

Most of these features are worthwhile, but a few are fairly weak. The interview-conversation between Paul Williams and Guillermo Del Toro is interesting; for geeky fans of the movie, the alternate takes are fun and the photo gallery is enjoyable. The interviews with director Brian De Palma and Paul Williams are surprisingly dull. I haven’t had a chance to watch Paradise Regained, the 2006 documentary on the making of Phantom of the Paradise, but it has an 8.1 rating on IMDB, so it’s most likely worth your time.

Probably the most interesting thing in the package is the featurette showing the changes that were required in order to avoid a lawsuit. In the original version of the film, Swan’s record label is called “Swan Songs,” intended as a reference to death. There’s an old folk tale that says that swans sing a beautiful song in the moments before they die, having previously only produced an ugly honking sound; a “swan song” is one’s final gesture, which is a fitting image to attach to the evil Swan. Unfortunately, shortly before the film was to be released, Led Zepplin’s manager, Peter Grant, created a real life record label called Swan Song Records, and all references to the name had to be removed from the film in post-production. The first Swan Song album, the self-titled Bad Company, was released in June of 1974, while Phantom premiered in October of the same year; obviously an unfortunate coincidence, but one that 20th Century Fox was not willing to defend. The badly-rushed changes added $22,000 to the production budget and marred the film. You can see all the alterations on the DVD.

The worst failing of the Blu-Ray set is the first audio commentary track; it opens promisingly, with the three performers who make up the bands shown in the film, “Juicy Fruits,” “Beach Bums” and “Undeads” (each performer takes lead in one of the bands), Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanar, and Peter Elbling (credited on the film under his stage name, Harold Oblong), having a grand time discussing the opening number and their experiences in creating their performances. But before too long, they are replaced by Jessica Harper; she tells stories about her involvement with the film, but never once references what we’re seeing at that moment; it’s clear she isn’t actually watching the film while recording her segment, and the same holds true when Gerrit Graham shows up for his commentary. At one point, for reasons unknown, Harper and Graham’s voices overlap, each talking about an entirely different part of the film’s history, in a frustrating mish-mash. There is a second commentary track with production designer Jack Fisk that does not have these problems.

The Phantom of the Paradise Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray is available on the Shout Factory website or at Amazon. Shout Factory is offering a limited-edition poster with pre-order, but it may be too late, as the film releases tomorrow, August 5.

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