MMmmmmm, mmmmmm GOOD! I had watched this a few years ago, before I started this site [and when I admired De Palma but was not yet fully crazed], liked it—and thought that my regular movie buddy should watch it as well. I finally sat him down and rather insisted that he watch this [he thanked me for it] and found that not only is it still brilliant, it’s ten times better than I remembered.
We open with this intro voiced by Rod Serling, showing the Death Records logo. It was originally Swan Song records, after the movie’s music mogul Swan, but the people associated with Led Zeppelin sued. Then we join a performance of The Juicy Fruits, a 50s nostalgia band in the Sha Na Na mode, who sing a song [a GOOD song] that tells the story of Eddie, a singer who killed himself, knowing that his stardom would skyrocket after his death, leaving his family enough money to pay for an operation for his sister.
Then one of Swan’s henchmen delivers a monologue directly to camera-as-Swan, about a female singer he found and groomed for Swan. Note how the feedback rises and covers his voice when he says “I told her who to fuck.” Swan abruptly shushes him to hear the music of Winslow Leach, who has taken to the middle of the stage and play his music to anyone who will listen. Swan send the henchman down to gather a few of “the upbeat numbers,” but it turns out that all the songs are part of a cantata entitled Faust that Winslow is adamant only he can sing. Nevertheless, the henchman takes the music.
A few weeks pass and Swan is planning to open the Paradise, a rock performance club. Winslow wanders into auditions where he meets Jessica Harper [of SUSPIRIA!!!] as Phoenix. She tells him that he wrote the music she’s singing, and finds out that Swan is going to use it to open the Paradise with. Poor Winslow is so naïve he can’t understand why Swan hasn’t contacted him about using his music, and is really excited to get the exposure. Swan’s guards are going to throw him out, so he follows along with Phoenix as she is brought up to meet Swan—basically a harem of women for Swan’s sexual enjoyment. She runs out, but before she and Winslow part ways, he tells her that she’s too good to sing in the chorus, and she responds “I don’t care where I sing this music.”
Winslow makes it in to that harem, disguised AS A WOMAN. He hears the other women say they made it in because Swan promised that they would sing, but they’re just acting as whores. Then the door opens and Swan makes his big entrance. We see Winslow, all made up, flower in his hair and in a dress, lying among a throng of women and begging, sexually and otherwise, for Swan. Swan sees him and says “Get this fag out of here.”
Winslow is thrown out, then security guards find him and plant drug on him, he goes to court, is sent to jail, spends a year in jail, escapes, and returns to the record plant to retrieve his music. He set to destroy the mold for the records, when he accidentally activates the press, slips and falls in, Swan’s version of Winslow’s music literally burned into the side of his face. He stumbles out to the river, falls in, and is reported as dead in the papers.
SPOILERS > > > We now begin the story. That’s right, the first 23 minutes were just a prelude! So while we’re at this natural stopping point, let’s pause to discuss. My friend I was watching this with, a De Palma neophyte [He saw Carrie way back when], turned to me and said “WHAT is with these images?,” which is probably the ideal response. And it’s true; every image for long sections is just like a slap in the face. You are shocked anew, and this begins to erode your ability to follow the story. And this is where De Palma does his special magic, because much of it is so cheesy, but one feels that De Palma fully knows that, is parodying it, and at the same time wholly sincere about it. My friend at work [not the friend I watched it with] who likes the movie but thinks it’s bad, commented on how they “obviously couldn’t afford a real courtroom,” but I think that was never the intent; we’re just supposed to see the gavel fall and then off to jail. It’s impressionistic and deliberately false and cartoony—yet it stands in for a real emotion, and personally I very vividly feel for the hopelessly idiotic and trusting Winslow as he is beaten and burned and left for dead, his life’s artistic work stolen. At the same time, his slipping and falling into the record press if nothing but ridiculous. Such is the mysterious fizz of the De Palma film.
So part two begins with the phantom, that’s Winslow, sneaking into the paradise. The Juicy Fruits are rehearsing a live version of “Upholstery.” If you listen carefully, the lyrics to this song are Winslow’s “I was not myself last night” song, the personal statement he sang the first time we heard them. The difference is that they have added a chorus about UPHOLSTERY, the result of what surely was an attempt to juxtapose the absolute dumbest chorus over Winslow’s personal lyrics. Swan has stolen his music and is making idiotic hit songs out of it. The Phantom put a bomb in the car then we go SPLIT SCREEN! Awww, YEAH, as they say. The ticking of the bomb almost matches the beat of the music, and it’s one of those that doesn’t quite work while at the same time you know what he’s getting at. The sequence still retains some effectiveness just by how long he waits before the bomb explodes. Swan is gratifyingly shocked, and the Phantom has announced his presence.
Swan continues holding auditions, and Phoenix shows up, defensive that she wants to sing [i.e. not join the harem]. The Phantom tells Swan that Phoenix can sing his music, she can be his voice, and Swan cuts him a deal; Winslow can finish his cantata at Swan’s for Phoenix to sing. Before we go on, mention must be made of the ludicrous dance Phoenix abruptly launches into upon completion of her song. It is akin to Pat Benatar’s SUDDEN shimmy in the infamous “Love Is a Battlefield” video. Anyway, Winslow is going to compose for Swan for Phoenix to sing, and Swan produces, out of the blue, a contract as thick as a telephone book for Winslow to sign in blood. He does—we know he is signing a pact with the devil—and that’s that then. This contract exemplifies what I was saying about how things are openly cheesy here; the contract itself is straight out of Daffy Duck, and it is ludicrous and making fun of how ludicrous it is at the same time, while also functioning as a totally straight story element. By the way, it’s interesting to know that the voice that serves as Winslow singing is actually Paul Williams singing—so he is stealing a voice from someone else that is actually his own voice all along.
Swan then, being evil, decides that he doesn’t want Phoenix to sing the music, and there is an interesting scene in which he turns in a circle as different groups, representing different genres of music, play parts of the song. 50s rock, country, gospel, he hears them all until he settles on a heavy metal sound. Meanwhile the Phantom [Winslow] is in a chamber that visually suggests he is literally being drained of his music. Please note in here that while he is composing, he has a vision of Phoenix dressed in black leather, just like him.
Meanwhile Swan is rehearsing Beef, the metal god that he chose as his new act. Beef is this blond beefcake who is all macho swagger onstage, but a squealing queen anywhere else. He complains that the Phantom’s music is written for a woman, but Swan tells him that “You can sing it better than any bitch.” Meanwhile, the Phantom has finished his work. Swan takes it and BRICKS him into the composing chamber. You gotta love such sniveling villainy. No surprise, the Phantom escapes.
He corners Beef in a hilarious scene where he put a toilet plunger over his mouth and tells him that if anyone other than Phoenix sings his music, they will die. Beef runs out the back—dressed in this bright red jacket with white fluff trim that caused my friend to make me stop the movie as he said “WHAT is he wearing?! He looks like Santa Claus!” The final touch are these shiny leather gloves. Anyway, the henchmen make him go back in and perform.
Beef appears on this Dr. Calgari-inspired stage and enacts this Frankenstein scenario. There’s a great moment as his coffin is being lowered to the stage and the Phantom glides upward across the screen, rising as the coffin falls. The Phantom slides a neon lightning bolt at Beef which electrocutes him on stage—and the crowd goes wild! They then thrust Phoenix out to perform, as this is what the Phantom wants, and she sings this gorgeous ballad “Old Souls” that is one of the highlights of the movie, and the companion piece [in the De Palma musical oeuvre] to the gorgeous “I Never Dreamed…” from Carrie. She brings down the house, and now Swan wants her in a contract—he wants to steal her voice. Those unsure of exactly how comfortable De Palma is to adding ridiculous humor into the middle of his stories will receive evidence when the screen fades into a circle around Phoenix’s face as she smiles warmly, having achieved her dream of stardom.
By the next scene she has been totally seduced by fame, is all dolled up and wearing a jacket made of bird feathers [I hope you’ve been noticing all the bird names and images]. The Phantom weeps as he sees her in bed with Swan, as we hear “Old Souls” again [a mistake, I think. It would have been much more effective to only hear it once]. He goes back to the Paradise, where he finds the room of tapes that represent the souls of all those who have signed their lives over to Swan. Personally, I think Swan should leave that stuff locked up, but whatever. He finds Swan’s tape and watches it. It shows a much younger Swan in a bathtub, about to slit his wrists because he’s growing old and won’t be young and beautiful anymore. Those unsure whether Paul Williams has been acting or being himself all this time will see that he successfully conveys quite a different character back then before he lost his soul. Anyway, the devil appears in the form of Swan’s mirror reflection—we get several Satan-POV shots, but the way—and produces a contract much like the one Winslow signed. Now, earlier Swan has informed the Phantom that he can only die when Swan dies, so the Phantom sets fire to the entire room of tapes and leaves to rescue Phoenix, who he has heard tell is going to be killed as part of a massive showstopper: new-born star shot down at the dawn of her career. It all ends in a massively operatic showdown, the final moments a succession of powerful images that overwhelm one, then fade to black.
< < < SPOILERS END
Mmm-mmm Good! It was FAR better than I remembered. I used to think that De Palma has become more refined as his career winds on [and of course he has], but this film made me wonder if actually he’s gone soft and more conventional. One can definitely see a thread from his earlier, more experimental work, like Hi Mom!, and this, which continues his meta-storytelling, never letting you forget that you are watching a movie. One is overwhelmed by all the levels of irony this thing in simultaneously working on, each element, from the story to the acting to the music to the technique, both wholly sincere and a mocking satire.
Most viewers are used to movies that purposely downplay their “Movie-ness,” using that as a way to get you emotionally involved in the story. Perhaps this is why De Palma has so many detractors; if you are trying to get emotionally involved with this movie and are taking it completely literally, of course you would think that goofy elements [like the sparse courtroom set my friend at work mentioned] are failures, and that the movie isn’t working. This is why movies like Raising Cain or Femme Fatale are considered such failures as straight-ahead movies; if you’re watching them to see a good thriller plot, you’re shopping in the wrong boutique. The reason my friend said “This is avant-garde” is that this is a movie that is told in satiric parodies of movie conventions, with De Palma using the gulf between his parodic reference and the sincere emotion the scene stands for to generate a more aware kind of movie longing: I wish I could believe in all of this, but it’s just a movie.
But if you're into the enjoyment of movies as well as how they are made, you can't have a better companion than De Palma. He is, at every moment, letting you in on what he's doing [if you are paying attention], packing a ton of information into every frame and making every camera movement mean something, but doing it in such an inclusive way--maybe precisely because he does reward your careful attention so much. Contrast this with the feeling one gets from a Scorsese movie: that you are supposed to be sitting back passively and admiring his skill and genius. There's so much skill and adoration of the movies in every De Palma movie that it's hard not to find it infectious, and this early entry reveals itself as one of his most electrifying.
YES! Especially if you like De Palma, are a Rocky Horror fan, or just like satires of the music business. Or really great, out-there movies.