Phantom of the Paradise has all the trappings of a failed passion project, only not a lot of passion for the project. Director De Palma, with a couple notable exceptions, doesn’t have much interest in directing a musical. When I say couple, I mean two–there are two scenes where he seems to care about directing the musical scenes. One of them is amusing, the other is breathtaking. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have much else to offer.
Except the soundtrack, I suppose. Paul Williams’s songs are fantastic.
Williams also stars in the film. He’s the “sold his soul to the Devil” music producer. William Finley is the guy who ends up selling his soul to Williams. Jessica Harper is the ingenue. De Palma’s script is an unfortunate mix of Phantom of the Opera, Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oh, and the Whale Frankenstein. It’s all over the place.
It’s very much a comedy, but very much a desperately unfunny one. Finley gets run through a slapstick wringer and takes actual damage from it. Williams’s character is one note. There’s occasionally some humor from it being Williams, but De Palma and cinematographer Larry Pizer aren’t satisfied just having an absurd script, they want absurd camera lens and movements and so on. At the beginning of the film, it seems like it’s all editor Paul Hirsch’s fault for not putting it together right, but no, there’s just no way to make it fit.
Harper’s pretty good though. Her singing audition is the one scene De Palma nails. He does a phenomenal job with it. He doesn’t do a phenomenal job once she gets the part and sings for an audience because De Palma directs those scenes poorly.
Also amusing is Gerrit Graham. He at least tries to be funny. The other comedic actors (Finley, George Memmoli as Williams’s sidekick)… well, if they’re trying to be funny, they’re failing. Hopefully they weren’t trying too hard.
At ninety minutes, Phantom overstays its welcome. Once it’s clear De Palma isn’t going to deliver on the musical numbers or the metaphor (and those failures are obvious when Harper ceases to have a character to play, just places to walk in front of the camera), it gets even more tiring.
Written and directed by Brian De Palma; director of photography, Larry Pizer; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Paul Williams; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Edward R. Pressman; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring William Finley (Winslow Leach), Paul Williams (Swan), Jessica Harper (Phoenix), Gerrit Graham (Beef) and George Memmoli (Arnold Philbin).