The movie musical has gone through its own strange evolution over the years. The first true musicals were meant to showcase the miracle of sound that was added to motion pictures in the late 1920s, when films such as The Broadway Melody packed the theaters. As the decades of the 20th century progressed, the movie musical would rise rapidly as a bonafide moneymaker, and then fall just as spectacularly. During its golden era in the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, classics such as The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, and West Side Story not only packed the theaters, but also provided the soundtrack to the lives of that era through the songs featured in those films. In the 1970s, the concept of the musical was still attempted, although not nearly as often and sometimes with disastrous results. Still, '70s-era musicals such as Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, demonstrated that there was still a market for the genre.
One offering from the 1970s that seems to get no love when the subject of movie musicals comes up is the 1974 Brian DePalma flick Phantom Of The Paradise.
DePalma, who is probably best known for films such as Scarface and The Untouchables, was fresh off directing the horror film Sisters. Composer Paul Williams was already riding high on radio hits he'd written for Three Dog Night ("An Old Fashioned Love Song") and the Carpenters ("We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays"). For Phantom Of The Paradise, Williams did double duty, composing all of the music and playing the mysterious record producer Swan. William Finley, Jessica Harper, and Gerrit Graham also started in major roles, but the real star of the film was Williams' music, which took a much more glam-rock route.
Now ScreamFactory, an offshoot of the popular ShoutFactory label, has released a new Blu-Ray/DVD reissue of the film, which will likely delight longtime fans of the movie, as well as those that simply appreciate a really cheesy example of a 70's era horror musical. The Blu-Ray disc features a high-definition transfer of the film, and it looks great. It goes without saying that it sounds great as well.
While the film bombed when it was initially released, it has become something of a cult favorite in the four decades since. Williams' music was again the main reason for this. Usually known for sweet and syrupy easy-listening material, the music in Phantom Of The Paradise was noticeably darker and more rock-oriented. Also notable, not to mention much easier to spot forty years on, was the higher-than-average cheese factor when it came to the performances. Some of the overacting seems deliberate, given that the story concerned larger than life rock stars, but in typical DePalma fashion, the characters often took things way over the line as they emoted. Think of Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface if you need a reference point ("Say hello to my little friend!"). The borrowing of the story lines from Phantom of the Opera and Picture of Dorian Gray, while creatively melded, were obvious in their origins. Still, watching the film today is a lot of fun, and the new Blu-Ray/DVD package features a lot of cool extras.
In addition to the high-def transfer, the Blu-Ray disc features audio commentary from actors Harper and Graham, as well as from Archie Hahn, Peter Elbling, and Jeffrey Comanor, who played the members of the omnipresent backing band in the movie. There are also new interviews with DePalma, Williams, and make-up effects artist Tom Burman. The DVD version features several more interviews, a documentary about the making of the film, alternate takes, theatrical trailers, TV and radio spots, and a still gallery. Of all the extras though, the one I found most fascinating was a comparison of scenes that originally displayed the logo of Swan Song Records, the label owned by Williams' character, Swan. Just as the movie was about to be released, Led Zeppelin's management decided to issue a cease and desist on using the Swan Song name, since it was already being used by Zeppelin as their real life label name. In the end, Swan's fictional label was renamed Death Records, and through some creative editing most traces of Swan Song was stricken from the film. A feature on the DVD shows a shot by shot comparison of what several scenes looked like before and after the name change.
While Phantom Of The Paradise might not be the best example of what a movie musical is, or even the best example of DePalma's filmmaking, it is nonetheless a fun watch, especially with the gorgeous new Blu-Ray treatment. Those extras are just icing on this cheesecake. As a true lover of movie musicals, Phantom Of The Paradise is a guilty pleasure of mine, and it deserves to be seen by more people.