In Phantom of the Paradise, Satan Stands in for Record Execs

09/12/2012 4:00 AM |

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Directed by Brian DePalma
September 14-15 at the IFC Center, one of its Midnight Movies

Expertly crass and masterfully deranged, Phantom of the Paradise is a hilarious comedy about how merit has nothing to do with succeeding commercially as an artist. Brian De Palma’s inspired 1974 rock musical goes to great lengths to joke that everyone, even the ghoulishly insouciant music impresario Swan (Paul Williams, who also scored the film), is “under contract.” This wouldn’t be so bad if the Devil weren’t the second party that owns the contracts binding the first party’s (i.e. every talented artist’s) body, soul and talent.

Just like Winslow Leach (William Finley), the gifted composer whose music he steals, and Phoenix (Jessica Harper), Swan is a victim of creative exploitation. He just happens to have a little more power than the film’s other songbird (the film’s three main characters have bird-like names or appearances; even Swan’s Death record label has a dead bird for its mascot). So when Swan makes a deal with the Devil, he’s selling himself out to the biggest deceiver of all. Bear in mind: when Winslow loses his voice and vengefully decides to haunt the Paradise, Swan’s megalithic rock club, he literally takes on Swan’s voice: Williams’s voice is used during this first scene featuring the Phantom’s jarring robo-voice. But once we realize that Swan has already similarly sold himself out to the Devil, who approaches Swan in his bathtub mirror as his mirror image (“But man, I am stoned!”), there’s no other ending left for our interdependent artistes than an unhappy, albeit blackly comic, one.