Winslow Leach (William Finley) frantically pastes up a strip of paper with his own name onto a much larger poster for a much larger band. Leach’s name—unknown, unestablished—can’t even cover the other band’s name; the Juicy Fruits have been backed by the most powerful music producer in town, and even their posters look expensive. Leach is out of his league, an independent artist unable to properly compete with the flash and zing of the music industry. Leach wants to make his mark with an out-of-fashion project, singing cantatas inspired by Faust in earnest, accompanied only by his own piano playing. Around him, janitors clean up the confetti left over from the performance that preceded his act. Even the Juicy Fruits’ trash is more substantial than Leach.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974) is decadence splashed on celluloid, a celebration of the shine of glam rock and a preemptive funeral for the scene officiated by the dark underside of the business of music production. The film offers a jaded look at an industry selling youth and optimism. It feels simultaneously self-assured and just glad to be invited to the party, the cinematic equivalent of arriving at a New Year’s Eve bash at six in the evening already covered in glitter. The opulence looks fun and feels desperate, an illusion of carefree youth packaged by musical producers for profit.
All that glitter is bound to stick long after the party’s done. Like glitter, the glamor of Phantom of the Paradise is cheap and hard to wash off. Even mid-performance, the props on stage look like cardboard, oversized and fake. A chintzy wagon made up to look like a hot rod; microphones with blunt, useless swords attached to them; mannequin parts tossed in the air. The music supported by the Death Records label looks fun and careless and free because, in a sense, it is—or at least, its production value is. The glitter on stage looks good because there’s enough of it to coat every possible surface—and it’s cheap. It’s a symbol of spendthrift glamor from an all-powerful producer who doesn’t really need to spare expenses because the production is, in reality, worthless.
The audience on screen buys into the fiction anyway, cheering as the musicians perform. By extension, we as the movie-viewing audience do, too. We’re taken in by the glitter and the shine because Brian De Palma—and the artists on the screen—performs a kind of alchemy, transforming trash into spectacle, a vision that is so much greater than the sum of all its little worthless parts, its flecks of glitter. De Palma makes this transformation with a grin and a camera flourish, then takes it one step further: after he makes the worthless look like something valuable, he flips it on its head and demonstrates that it was never going to amount to anything in the long run. The final reveal is a gut punch and a warning: if you’re the artist, chase fame at your own peril. Youth—and the excesses that come with it—is an illusion. If you can’t let it go, you’ll be chewed up as grist and left to bleed out on stage.
Phantom of the Paradise is a storm of sound and color and disparate plot threads, nearly incoherent under its layers of details. As one of the evil producer’s goons says to a hopeful musician: “A song is a song, you dig it or you don’t.” If you dig Phantom of the Paradise, you’ll be willing to let the inconsistencies and imperfections of the film wash on by as they’re replaced by further eye-popping artistic decisions. Who cares if the sets look like cardboard propped up by more cardboard, so long as they’re still a spectacle?
Even on a structural level, Phantom of the Paradise is overstuffed, its cultural touchstones spilling over from plot beat to plot beat until they overwhelm the synapses with sparks of recognition. The movie lifts its name and much of its structure from Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, but De Palma isn’t content to simply update the original into a ‘70s glam rock setting. He reverses the roles of the characters, too—a tip of the cards revealing his willingness to reverse other expected elements in the story to come. In the original Opera, the Phantom is the evil producer with all the power to direct the opera’s productions, while in Paradise, Winslow Leach (who becomes the titular Phantom) is an independent artist at the mercy of the market and a production system he doesn’t understand. Even after he invades the Paradise club, he’s trapped under a predatory contract that won’t even allow him to die. Christine in Opera is an innocent ingenue, while her Paradise counterpart, Phoenix (Jessica Harper), will do anything to perform in front of a crowd. Where Christine remains innocent, Phoenix grows hardened, corrupted by the industry she wants so desperately to be a part of.
De Palma freely harvests other stories for his own use, assembling Paradise from a sort of narrative collage of English literature: Faust, Paradise Lost, The Cask of Amontillado, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Each one involves the making of some deal, knowing or unknowing, with a devil. The characters find themselves at the mercy of forces they once tried to control, each one trapped by a fate of their own design. De Palma repurposes the deals drawn from his source material, drawing links between demonic control, economic power, and the rights to one’s own artistic talent.
De Palma supplements his structural touchstones from literature with visual ones lifted straight from his own film influences. A stage performance features a set based on James Whale’s 1931 version of Frankenstein, the musicians with their faces painted to resemble the somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. When the Phantom is unmasked to reveal his own disfigured face, the shot rhymes with the reveal in the silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney. Leach’s Phantom is a slicker, shinier version of Leroux’s Phantom: the original Phantom’s white-tie dress is traded for a leather suit and satin cape, the white half-mask exchanged for a silver crash helmet shaped like an owl’s head. De Palma even stages a cheeky homage to the shower scene from Psycho, trading a murder for the threat of murder, a screaming woman for a neurotic rock star, and the knife for a toilet plunger. The effect is a waterfall of cultural references and touchstones, each one repurposed for comedic effect and horror.
Phantom of the Paradise’s evil music producer, Swan (Paul Williams), exercises his own control over his stable of artists with stacks of old-fashioned vellum and ink, signed in blood. He himself signed a deal with the devil in order to stay young forever. He sells that same dream of eternal relevance to the musicians he preys on, by promising them the adoration of the crowd if they only agree to the legalese in their contracts. Swan’s music deals are two-faced: he’ll take every cent of profit he can get from the musicians he signs before moving on to the next and newest. The musicians don’t produce the music, they are the product, sold by Swan to the adoring crowd. Swan owns them, and by extension their work; Phoenix and the Phantom and everyone else in Swan’s stable are made by their contracts into the capital of a good time, of entertainment, of the next new thing.
The literature and purloined film references become inextricable from each other, intertwined as they are into the threads of De Palma’s new story. On paper, Phantom of the Paradise joins the ranks of its predecessors as a sordid story about a deal with the devil. Onscreen, the movie demonstrates why such a deal would be appealing. The visuals—glitter, lights, a screaming audience, the myriad references to other movies—give the story a new dimension, an aural and visual opulence best experienced through glam rock and celluloid. Phantom of the Paradise is, in every sense of the word, a production: the result of a creative force taking the artistic products he most appreciates and reassembling them into something new and enticing.
How fitting, then, that De Palma uses his own production to lambaste the act of production in real life. Swan stands in for predatory tastemakers everywhere, but especially in the music industry. Swan doesn’t make music at all. He’s a collector and a consumer, freely lifting the artistic endeavors that he likes from hopeful musicians, then re-forming their art to fit his own taste and selling that version to the world. Swan’s production doesn’t serve the art; he uses the art to prop up his own mythos and power, a cycle of use and exploitation that places the true artists in the field under his power and at his mercy. Swan doesn’t really sell music, either. Like De Palma selling an outlandish experience through the magic of filming and editing, Swan is selling a sensory experience—a feeling of youth—to every audience member who buys a ticket to the Paradise club.
It’s worth noting that, just as the events of the story revolve around Swan’s gravitational pull, the music that drives the movie could also never have existed without Paul Williams, who plays the producer. Though Swan the character never writes any music of his own, Williams wrote both score and soundtrack. Phantom of the Paradise works as a rock opera because Williams understands the music scene of the time so intimately—both the vicious underside that he portrays onscreen, and the musical stylings he lampoons offscreen. As a songwriter, Williams is a chameleon, shifting lyrics to fit a wealth of genres—‘50s nostalgia rock, glam rock, lovelorn ballads, snarling anthems. Williams speaks the language of each style fluently.
Swan, on the other hand, only speaks the language of want. His musicians want fame, and their audiences want a spectacle, and he wants the power that both parties are willing to trade in order to fulfill their own desires. Swan makes the fame look so good from the outside—so shiny, so carefree—that the audience will pay anything for a good show, and the musicians who hope to be signed by him will agree to give away their rights and their dignity for the chance. Swan’s henchmen take advantage of this eagerness by extorting female performers for sex in exchange for a chance to meet the producer. Such an exchange would have meant that the hopeful singers, in years past, would have been given the unfair label “easy.”
The irony is that Swan dangles the illusion of ease in front of hopeful musicians, but the production system is set up only for Swan’s own profit; the “easy” hopefuls in reality have to climb through a maze of distasteful requirements in order to sign the rest of their rights away for a contract under Swan. Enter Phoenix: a singer who won’t submit to Swan’s casting couch (at least when she first encounters it). She insists on singing for her fame instead of trading away her rights for it. Swan calls her “perfect,” and, in the same breath, rejects her for a contract because he dislikes perfection in anyone but himself. He can’t sell something to someone who already has it. Only after she’s given the chance to sing in front of a crowd does she agree to Swan’s terms. She’d been hoping for a contract purely because she wanted to sing, to make art. Swan twists that desire by showing her what it feels like to sing in front of a crowd, and she shifts her allegiance from just the song to the rush that performing a song to an audience can bring. Her resolve for artistic purity fractures, and she agrees to give Swan anything he wants in exchange for that crowd again.
Williams’ songwriting and De Palma’s presentation together capture the splintered identity of rock and roll. They trace the development of the genre through the evolution of the Juicy Fruits, a ‘50s-nostalgia band who rebrand first into a Beach Boys knockoff (“The Beach Bums”), then a glam-rock horror group (“The Undeads”). “Juicy Fruits” implies a comfort with the stickiness of music clubs and summer, the kind of chasing after youth that their label is willing to invest in. The double entendre comes across as both winking and cruel, a form of homophobia underlined by the band’s leering misogyny—and willingness to take advantage of their female fans mid-performance—on display during the number that opens the film.
De Palma shows a chaotic rehearsal for the band in their surf-rock incarnation through split-screen, cameras covering disparate angles of the action on stage. The angles allow the same characters to appear onscreen from two different directions simultaneously: a fracturing of the band’s identity on stage, and a violation of the rules of filmmaking. It looks cheap and wrong, but it proves De Palma’s point. The Juicy Fruits/Beach Bums are a manufactured product, cut up and repackaged by the label with a new sound. It’s the wrong sound for the music they’re singing, but it’s the capital the label craves—youth culture, with the youth dehydrated out of it and presented for mass consumption. The female dancers on stage are bullied out of their coats so that they can prance and wave in their bikinis for a nonexistent audience; like the Juicy Fruits, whose music they back up, they’ll be forgotten before the scene is over, replaced by whatever upcoming spectacle is deemed more exciting.
When Swan decides to audition replacements to perform at the opening night at the Paradise, he does so entirely based on aesthetics. The camera tracks behind Swan’s head as he turns slowly around the center of a circular1 conference table. Musical acts pass by in the darkness: a folk band, sisters singing in duet, a country singer alone, a soul trio with high and clear voices, a singular glam rock star wearing his vocal cords ragged as he sings. They’re all singing the same song, but to Swan, the lyrics don’t matter so much as the packaging. He isn’t looking for the genre that fits the music; he’s looking for the aesthetic that will sell the most tickets.
Where the Juicy Fruits come across as unselfconscious and ironic, and where Phoenix comes across as earnest almost to the point of desperation, their successor (Gerrit Graham) is willing to lean into knowing camp, and all the excesses that come with it. Even his improbable (incredible!) name—Beef—is a wink toward voracious appetites, and more than just a nod to sexual innuendo. Beef is artificial, swimming in irony. Beef knows the rules of the production game, and he’s in on the joke. He matches Swan’s excesses with excesses of his own, slipping across the stage in wooden high-heeled shoes, his hair caked in glitter and coiffed like that of a classical Greek statue. He pronounces the word “professional” with extra syllables. The Juicy Fruits’ presentation might have been cobbled together from genre to genre, but Beef beats the label band at their own game by performing dressed as Frankenstein’s monster—a man created by the label purely to sell music in spectacular fashion.
And De Palma—like Swan and his cronies—sells spectacle here, more than anything else. The entire film is soaked in color: crimson and gold in the hallways of the titular Paradise club, metallics shining in the microphones and musical instruments, and the flash of neon lights in pink, green, and yellow in the background at every show. Paradise attendees and auditioning hopefuls wear clothing in natural fibers and floral prints, nature untouched by Swan, the devil in a shag haircut and leisure suit. The performers on stage, in contrast, wear sequins and spandex, synthetic materials in spectacular colors and shapes. Phoenix starts off dressed simply enough, but dons a coat made entirely of pheasant feathers once she’s been crowned Swan’s newest favorite. The Phantom wears black skin-tight leather, a void of a man who’s been emptied of his art by a soulless producer. Even the blood, when it’s finally spilled, is cherry red. It pops off the screen, mortal seriousness masked in a cartoon shade.
The cartoony nature of the visuals sells the faux-glamor of the Paradise better than any realistic style could; the exaggerated nature of the sets, cheap as they might look, gives the movie an appearance of being that much larger than life. Swan’s production company, Death Records, features winding, impractical black-and-white corridors that twist through the building with no discernible logic, in an inefficient and extravagant use of space. Before he becomes the Phantom, Winslow Leach enters the building hoping to be signed by Swan. He finds nothing of substance: no recording studios, no instruments, no producer, just a woman in a Death Records t-shirt filing her nails behind a desk, and a record press that will maim Leach’s face, driving him to haunt the Paradise for revenge.
Where Death Records is sparse, the Paradise is ornate: the club is festooned with mirrors, doing double duty to make the building’s interior look bigger, even though the images those mirrors reflect have no real substance. Swan can see himself from any angle in those mirrors, can admire his own self-declared perfection whenever he’d like. He knows himself for the devil he is. The Phantom, on the other hand, can’t confront himself in those same mirrors. He shies away; they magnify his burned face, and with it his failure to hold on to the rights to his own music. The Phantom covers his face in shining metal armor to protect him from pity and scorn, including his own.
Before it all goes to hell, before Leach is signed to a contract under Swan, before he’s disfigured and trapped within the Paradise’s walls as the Phantom, before the opulence of the Paradise is shown to be a sham, Leach plays piano in a club. He might be an unsigned artist playing unpopular music, but De Palma treats that art with respect. The camera swirls around Leach as he plays and sings, the lens holding a tight focus on his face. Everything else falls away. There’s no artifice: Leach’s music, with no frills added, is the only art in the world that matters. He’s certainly the only artist in the building; he’s playing to an empty club. The only person in-film who can hear him is Swan, and tragically, Swan doesn’t hear Leach the way we do. He only hears a song that he wants to repurpose for the opening of the Paradise.
Months in the future and miles away, Phoenix is pushed on the stage at the opening of the Paradise. Beef has flamed out on stage, murdered by the vengeful Phantom, and in his desperation to keep the show going, Swan turns to the singer he’d rejected for being too perfect and too innocent. She steals the show with a song Leach wrote for her.
“Old Souls” is an anomaly—a slow love ballad, far more restrained than any other song in the film. The piano accompanying Phoenix’s performance takes a back seat to Jessica Harper’s voice. The maximalist stage setting from Beef’s performance is gone, replaced by a simple velvet curtain; the raucous audience screaming that they want Beef is silenced. They’re held rapt by everything Swan has previously discarded. Instead of glitter, darkness; instead of Beef’s stagy hypermasculinity, Phoenix’s unpracticed and unguarded femininity; instead of processed false youth, a song about a love older than the lovers experiencing it.
“All souls last forever so we need never fear goodbye,” sings Phoenix, and for a moment, the artifice driving Phantom of the Paradise falls away. There’s no need to sell youth anymore, because there’s nothing to fear from aging. Phoenix’s song is genuine because it embraces change and age, and it refuses to put a price tag on the love around which the lyrics turn. Phoenix isn’t selling anything to her audience; she’s giving it away for free.