Quick, name a movie from the 1970s that’s full of bawdy rock tunes, cartoon gore and camp humor, one that offers a big flirty wink at its knowing devotees and just feels more appropriate when screened at midnight?
If you said the 1975 cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” you would not be wrong. But if you guessed “Phantom of the Paradise,” Brian De Palma’s 1974 satire of the music business, you’d be correct as well these days.
Despite a promising early review in Variety, “Phantom” was initially a disappointment at the box office. The film has in recent years been championed by younger directors including Guillermo del Toro and Edgar Wright (who hosted a screening in Los Angeles last month), celebrated by fans at two Phantompalooza conventions and embraced by musicians who relish its comic-book style, sophisticated score (by Paul Williams, who also co-stars as a devious impresario named Swan) and gimlet-eyed view of their industry.
And well before Shout! Factory issued a new two-disc Blu-ray edition of the film this month, “Phantom of the Paradise” found its way back to theaters, thanks to programmers at cinemas like the Music Box in Chicago, where the critic Gene Siskel eviscerated “Phantom” in his original review, writing, “What’s up on the screen is childish.”
Such dismissal was a fatal kiss for a film that was supposed to be part of the “New Hollywood,” a studio production from 20th Century Fox with street smarts and daring. “It was an era when people were letting young directors make all kind of films,” Mr. De Palma said in a phone interview. “For a while.”
Shot primarily in Dallas at the Majestic, a disused movie palace, the film, written by Mr. De Palma, is an oddball blend of the Faust myth, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and the 1925 Universal Pictures adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
The mash-up finds the nebbishy composer Winslow Leach (played by William Finley) torn between a desire for fame and his devotion to an immense Faust-based cantata.
“If Mr. Swan would produce my music, the whole world would listen to me,” he says dreamily. Unfortunately for Leach, Swan may or may not be in league with Satan and is certainly not someone you would trust with the only copy of your opus, let alone your muse (played by Jessica Harper).
The puppyish Winslow is roughed up, framed, and his music is stolen. He escapes from Sing Sing intent on vengeance. Frenzied, he is deformed in a freak record-pressing accident, but exacts revenge as a leather clad, helmeted ghoul. He soon haunts the Paradise, a concert hall that is Swan’s monument to himself and his tacky discoveries, until the irritated Svengali strikes a bargain with the monster, involving the presentation of the cantata; only Phoenix (Ms. Harper) is allowed to sing it. The terms are, of course, instantly broken, and “Faust” is given to Swan’s established stars instead.
Ms. Harper beat out both Linda Ronstadt and Sissy Spacek (who would star in Mr. De Palma’s hit “Carrie”) for the job, the first of a string of offbeat parts in films as varied as Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” and Herb Ross’s “Pennies From Heaven.”
“Those were the ones that came my way, because I was an offbeat sort of actress,” Ms. Harper said in a recent interview at a cafe in Midtown Manhattan. “I was never that perky. I always wanted to be.”
For the Swan role, Mick Jagger was considered, but the elfin Mr. Williams, then a bona fide pop figure, a frequent “Tonight” show guest and hit songwriter (for the Carpenters and Three Dog Night, among others) was cast. There was nothing in those compositions “indicative that I would be the right person to write the songs for ‘Phantom of the Paradise,’ ” Mr. Williams said by phone.
However, he had the range that Mr. De Palma needed to send up rock tropes like revivalism (one of Swan’s bands is the ’50s pastiche the Juicy Fruits) and surf music (another, the Beach Bums, utter the immortal line “Carburetors, man, that’s what’s life is all about!”), as well as the glitter and shock rock that was then in vogue. Mr. Williams could also produce melancholy ballads and excerpts for Leach’s “Faust” as well.
The director and the songwriter also shared a sense of outrage over the degradation of popular entertainment during the era. The idea for the film came to Mr. De Palma during an elevator ride. “I heard a Beatles song, ‘A Day in the Life,’ coming out like Muzak,” Mr. De Palma said. “I saw the way that this stuff was getting corrupted.”
Noting that “Phantom” culminates in a live televised assassination attempt that is also a publicity stunt, Mr. Williams said that by 1973, “we were sitting home with our TV trays watching the war in Vietnam.” He added, “The line of demarcation between entertainment and news had become blurred.”
Before the film’s release on Halloween of 1974, lawsuits were filed by both Universal Pictures (over supposed similarities to its 1925 film) and Led Zeppelin, over Swan Song Enterprises, the name of Swan’s fictional record label, which happened to be too close to the band’s label, Swan Song Records. “We had to physically change the negatives” with the new label name, Death Records, said the producer, Edward R. Pressman. With the litigants appeased and a killer tag line in place — “He sold his soul for rock ’n’ roll” — it seemed like nothing could stop “Phantom.”
“It was a stone box office dog,” said Gerrit Graham, who played the outrageous glam rocker Beef in the film. “What went wrong was that Fox had no idea how to promote it, because it couldn’t be categorized.” He added later, “The reason Fox found it unwieldy — the scabrous humor about the music industry, the unhappy love story and the weirdness of some of the characters — are exactly the reasons why people love it now.”
Though Mr. Pressman rereleased the film in secondary markets, and it eventually made money, in various major cities the film simply vanished. The seeds of the current “Phantom” cult might have much to do with that early disappearance.
“The only thing I could do to stay connected with it was to start collecting,” said Ari Kahan, who runs the definitive “Phantom” website, swanarchives.org, in the Bay Area. “I had to troll comic book conventions and establish a network of people who would keep their eyes out for me.”
Today, Mr. Kahan fields emails from all over the world — “It’s huge in Argentina,” he said — and enthusiasts can find Death Records T-shirts on eBay, handmade copies of the Phantom’s birdlike helmet on Etsy and even fan fiction on other sites.
The electronic duo Daft Punk is among the faithful and saw it nearly 20 times at an art house in Paris. “I’m told the revival of it ran almost uninterrupted there,” said Mr. Williams, now a Daft Punk collaborator.
Gerard Way, the former lead singer of the platinum-selling rock band My Chemical Romance, was born three years after the film’s release but has seen it, by his estimation, 30 times. “When I was doing ‘The Black Parade,’ ” Mr. Way said of the band’s hit 2006 concept album, “I thought about the film all the time, about its message of sacrificing integrity in order to reach more people.”
The Blu-ray set is not merely a vindication for “Phantom,” but for Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the movie’s popularity has never waned. The city was host to both Phantompaloozas (which eventually drew some cast members) “To us, it was not a hard sell,” said Doug Carlson, a resident who runs Phantomoftheparadise.ca, another fan site. “Winnipeg is a big music town.”
The film’s new popularity has led to talk of comic books, remakes and stage adaptations. “We’ve been approached by a number of people both in Europe and in the States,” Mr. Pressman said. “There was a false start years ago doing it in Las Vegas.”
Mr. Williams, who said he is working with Mr. del Toro on adapting the director’s film “Pan’s Labyrinth” into a musical, said he could be on board for a stage version: “I still think it’s a great idea. I’d like to see it done.”
Mr. Williams, who in the fall will release a self-help book he helped write, seems to have the phenomenon in perspective. “Do not write something off as a failure too quickly,” he said. “The fact that it disappeared made it the great success it is today.”Tags: actress, concert, director, film, movie, music, producer, release, singer, tv