Life at last!
Salutations from the other side!
I can see that you’re the devil’s pride..
Brian De Palma’s 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise is one of those “cult classics” that gets bandied around by movie and music nerds as one of THE classic film musicals that just never found an audience, save for a legion of devoted fans that have been celebrating it for the last 40 years. Acclaimed directors like Guillermo Del Toro and Edgar Wright are unabashed mega-fans of the movie (click here to see Wright’s lavish praise of the movie), and why wouldn’t they be? It’s a richly entertaining satire on the dehumanizing corporatization of art, filtered through early 1970s rock sensibilities with echoes of Phantom of the Opera, Faust, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and classic Universal monster movies of the past.
The movie’s plot is simple enough: burgeoning songwriter Winslow Leach is eager to have his cantata — a rock opera version of Faust — produced by legendary rock impresario and producer extraordinaire Swan, and sung by the beautiful ingenue Phoenix. Swan steals Leach’s songs and has him beaten, framed for drug dealing, and sent to prison for life. After six months in prison, Leach (who has had all his teeth extracted and replaced with shiny metal implants) hears his songs on the radio, now butchered beyond recognition by one of Swan’s lame Beach Boy wannabe groups. He breaks out of incarceration to exact his revenge at Swan’s record plant. But in a freak accident, Leach manages to disfigure his face and vocal chords in a record pressing machine, before disappearing into the river after being shot by a security guard.
But Leach survives, and donning a black leather outfit, cape, and bird-like metal mask, he haunts Swan’s rock palace ‘The Paradise’, waiting to enact his revenge and save his beloved Phoenix from Swan’s greedy, self-serving, diabolical clutches!
It all sounds a bit like cheese, and maybe it is, but it’s deeply satisfying and altogether wonderful, both darkly comic and tragically bittersweet all at once. In the three main roles of Leach/The Phantom, Phoenix, and Swan, William Finley, Jessica Harper, and Paul Williams are all just terrific. Williams himself not only acquits himself brilliantly as the evil, charismatic presence of Swan, he also wrote all the songs for the movie. Usually known for his MOR style of music (think The Carpenters, Three Dog Night, heck even “Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie), Williams took on a variety of rock stylings when creating the film’s music, from soulful balladry to glam rock, bouncy pop to a touch of Southern California country rock. It all works.
Today’s selection is from the centerpiece of the film’s middle act, in which The Phantom is about to enact revenge on ‘Beef’, a prima-donna glam rock type who is about to perform Leach’s compositions onstage before a shrieking audience. The Phantom is enraged that Phoenix — the woman he loves — isn’t performing his songs (as previously agreed upon with Swan), and he haunts the rafters preparing to strike. There are two parts to this presentation: Somebody Super Like You, in which the band ‘The Undead’ (previously ‘The Juicy Fruits’, a 50s nostalgia act, and ‘The Beach Bums’, who specialized in the reviled Surf Rock genre) introduce Beef to the crowd by symbolically decapitating and mutilating them, sewing the pieces together in a coffin to create Beef himself. Beef then sings Life At Last, his ode to being reconstructed in life after residing in Hell for who knows how long.
It’s silly and ridiculous, all shock and glam and self-indulgence, and it’s also visually and musically perfect. Check out the video and see how The Phantom reacts to all this nuttiness.
Life at last!
Sit and listen while the fun begins
Hearts are broken and the bad guys win
Sit and listen all the cutting up is easy
And this isn’t for the queasy or the weak of heart
You had better start for home
While there’s still time!
NOTE: Start the video at 3:07 for the music. The scene before is basically just set-up for the music. It’s the only vid I could find with both songs performed in all their glory!