A lone man sits at a piano on a deserted stage. He’s slender and slightly nerdy looking with thick glasses and a high forehead with wavy shoulder length hair He sings passionately, sways dramatically, and looks for approval from the stage crew members who pass by. Nobody seems to be listening…but someone is. Someone with the devil in him. The song he sings is sad but hopeful and lyrically moving:
“I was not myself last night
Couldn’t set things right with apologies or flowers
Out of place as a cryin’ clown
Who could only frown and the play went on for hours.
And as I lived my role, I swore I’d sell my soul for…
One love, who would stand by me
And give me back the gift of laughter
Yeah and one love, who would stand by me
And after making love we’d…
Dream a bit of style
We’d dream a bunch of friends
Dream each others smile
And dream it never ends”
This was my introduction to the colorful musical world of Brian DePalma’s “Phantom of the Paradise.” Like many of my favorite films, I came across it in the 1990’s while doing some late night channel surfing where I landed on CITY-TV’s “Late Great Movies.” This was the scene that grabbed my attention. It was curious enough to make me stop for a moment, but it was the music that drew me in instantly. That intense and hauntingly beautiful song about a man on the brink of madness yearning for one love to return a sense of calmness to his soul. The song was called “Faust,” the singer was actor William Finley in the role of doomed music composer Winslow Leach, and the music was composed by the one and only Paul Williams.
In this world there are two sorts of people. There are “Rocky Horror Picture Show” people, and there are “Phantom of the Paradise” people. I suppose you can like both, but there is an undercurrent of animosity between the two fandoms. “Rocky Horror Picture Show” fans seem, for the most part, to be ignorantly unaware of “Phantom of the Paradise,” while “Phantom of the Paradise” fans just simply know which film is better. There. I said it. I’m obviously a “Phantom of the Paradise” person. It’s one of my top personal favorite films.
Although the two films are different in almost every way, its impossible to not compare “Rocky Horror” with “Phantom.” Released a year apart by 20th Century Fox (“Phantom” in 1974 and “Rocky Horror” in 1975), both were horror/comedy musicals with colorful characters and larger than life situations and satire. Furthermore, both films were panned by critics and commercial failures upon their original releases. But while “Rocky Horror” found a massive cult following by the end of the 1970’s, “Phantom of the Paradise’s” following seemed to grow at a much slower rate, creating a far more niche yet passionate fanbase. The only exception to this was in Winnipeg. People in Winnipeg have always loved “Phantom of the Paradise,” but that’s another narrative.
But where “Phantom of the Paradise” differs from “Rocky Horror” is that the horror is far more intense, the satire less campy, the tone is darker and the music, composed by 1970’s hit maker Paul Williams, is of a higher caliber. Now I am a huge fan of Paul Williams’ entire body of work, but I believe, as do many other of his fans, that the songs he wrote for “Phantom of the Paradise” may be his greatest cohesive body of work. Each song is beautifully written, uniquely individual and range from being playful to cynical to emotionally potent. This is the reason that the “Phantom of the Paradise” soundtrack is my all-time favorite movie soundtrack ever produced. Every track on the album is just perfect.
If you’ve never seen “Phantom of the Paradise” you really need to. It’s a magical film that mixes horror, music, fantasy, social criticism and satire in a colorful rock n’ roll world. Basically, Brian DePalma took the classic tales of “Dr. Faustus,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” mashed it all up in a ball and then turned it into a glam rock musical. That might sound like a bit too bizarre to imagine, but it works very well..
“Phantom of the Paradise” tells the story of a devilish and corrupt music mogul named Swan (Paul Williams), an aspiring singer named Phoenix (Jessica Harper in her film debut), and a struggling composer named Winslow Leach (William Finley). Manipulated by Swan who seeks to steal his music, Leach, disgraced, disfigured and left for dead, finds his way into the halls of the music venue Swan is set to open, The Paradise, and donning a silver helmet and a leather costume, begins to terrorize the people who dare to perform his songs.
Before casting even began on “Phantom of the Paradise,” Brian DePalma knew the most important element to the film’s success was going to be the music and hired Paul Williams to create the musical world of The Paradise. Having written massive hits over the past few years for The Carpenters, Three Dog Night and Helen Reddy, Williams had gained the reputation as one of the best songwriters working out of Los Angeles. Furthermore, with his large personality, which seemed to compensated his noticeably small stature, he had also become a recognizable public figure appearing in films, television and talk shows. Paul Williams was still on his way up but quickly becoming an icon of the era.
Initially De Palma had planned to use Williams only as a songwriter and had no plans to have him appear in the film. But early on, while Williams was performing one of the film’s songs for DePalma, the bold decision was made that “Phantom of the Paradise” would completely revolve around the songwriter. In an interview with Billboard Paul Williams recalled that DePalma looked at him and said “You have a Phil Spector quality to you. Maybe you should play Swan.” Suddenly Paul Williams went from being the film’s composer to also being the film’s star. Williams didn’t come alone though. For the film and its soundtrack, Williams got DePalma to use his personal touring group and the musicians he developed the music with, who can be prominently seen featured throughout the film.
I often come across statements saying that Williams couldn’t have been more miscast in the role of the devilish music mogul. Well, I’ve met Paul Williams and have talked with him a few times and its true that he is the furthest away from Swan in nature that a man could be. Paul Williams is a very kind and thoughtful man who embraces love, wellness and positivity. But despite this, I can’t imagine another person playing the role. I think Williams’ performance is iconic. In the role of Swan Williams comes off as being impish, and his lack of sex appeal adds a sinister quality when the women in the film clamor for him. Swan finds his power in excess, hedonism and ego – three of the 1970’s deadliest of sins. Maybe Paul Williams was a strange choice for the role, but it was inspired casting that ultimately works.
One of the joys of the soundtrack to “Phantom of the Paradise” is that Paul Williams allowed himself to play with musical styles and genres in creating the different tracks for the film. His compositions range from 50’s nostalgia (“Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye”), surf music (“Upholstery”), shock rock (“Somebody Super Like You”), glam rock (“Life at Last,” sung by the film’s colorful hard rocker Beef, portrayed by Gerrit Graham in a scene stealing performance) and even a hint of disco (“Special to Me.”)
But the standout songs are, of course, the ballads written in the style that Paul Williams became acclaimed for – “Faust,” “The Phantom’s Theme (Beauty and the Beast)” and “Old Souls.” Paul Williams has become known for his ability to write songs that pierce the heart and reveal the sadness in the human condition. One of his most famous examples of this is the Carpenters “Rainy Days and Mondays.” Leach’s cry for love to find him in “Faust” echoes the same themes. Two versions of “Faust” appear on the album – one sung by Finley and another by Williams. While Finley’s version is stripped down and has the greater emotional intensity, the Paul Williams version, which we only her for a moment in the film, is richly produced and arguably the stronger of the two tracks.
Meanwhile, “Old Souls,” sung by Jessica Harper, is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written by Williams. A song about true love, with a nod to reincarnation, it sounds like something which Williams would have written for Karen Carpenter. I think its tragic that The Carpenters never recorded it because it could have been the giant hit it deserved to be. I love this song so much that when Griz and I were getting married I suggested “Old Souls” to be our wedding song, but, while they said it was nice, Griz felt we should go with something more upbeat and shorter and it was ultimately vetoed. Ah well….
Beyond the emotional ballads, Williams’ songs are filled with clever wordplay and, in the case of “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye,” cutting social criticism. The film’s opening song, the rock n’ rolling doo wop flavored anthem tells the story about a struggling rock singer who needs to make fast money to pay for his little sister’s life saving surgery, thus commits suicide so he can be “an over night sensation.” As the song explains:
“When a young singer dies to our shock and surprise
In a plane crash or flashy sports car
He becomes quite well known and the kindness he’s shown
Has made more than one postmortem star.”
Written with the deaths of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix still fresh in the audience’s minds, the sentiment of the song has proved to be timeless and became eerily more accurate in the cases of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse who, during their life, were dismissed as burn outs but, in death, became instant icons, selling more albums and merchandise after their demise than when they were living.
Oddly, the song that got the most life outside of the film at the time of it’s release was the film’s closing theme “The Hell of It.” Sung by Williams, the song has a jaunty old fashioned cabaret sound to it, much like what he did with Three Dog Night’s “Old Fashioned Love Song,” and which he’d work into his next film score for “Bugsy Malone” and later on in Fozzie Bear and Kermit the Frog’s travelling number “Moving Right Along” from “The Muppet Movie.” What is curious is that “The Hell of It” was originally intended for a scene that appeared in the script, but was cut from production and never even shot. In the cut scene, “The Hell of It” is sung over Beef’s funeral, which Swan is televising, and during the long piano solo that concludes the number, mourners would be dancing around the grave while a little girl, attempting an impromptu audition for Swan, would jump up on the coffin and do a tap dance as the piano music grows more frantic. Fortunately, the producers felt the song was too good to discard, and it got placed over the final credits. In it’s placement, the viewer naturally assumes that the lyrics are about Swan and it acts sort of as a theme for him, becoming a natural fan favorite. Paul Williams would go on to cross promote “The Phantom of the Paradise” by performing “The Hell of It” in two of the most unlikeliest of places. First he performed it at a Transylvanian Halloween Party on the season two premier of “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries” and later performed it on the ill fated “Brady Bunch Variety Hour,” which included a troupe of dancers and synchronized swimmers dressed in outfits resembling the dancing girls that appear in the movie at the Paradise.
Although “Phantom of the Paradise” is easily one of the major points in Paul Williams’ career, what I found in the times I’ve spoken with him, as well as in other interviews he’s given, is that he doesn’t seem to be as excited to talk about “Phantom” like the fans would hope. He’d much rather talk about “The Muppets” and The Carpenters instead of that time in his career. A possible reason for this is that at the time he was making “Phantom,” Paul was living his own life of Hollywood excess and dealing with devils of his own. As revealed in the award-winning 2011 documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” he was heavily addicted to cocaine, alcohol and fame and “Phantom” would have been around the time that he was living that high life. Maybe he doesn’t remember, or maybe he doesn’t want to remember, but while his career flourished over the next few years with more awards. hit songs and movie appearances, Williams would hit rock bottom by the early 1980’s. However, Paul Williams got clean and now dedicates his life to sobriety. Today Williams continues to work as a sponsor and councilor for people struggling with addiction and is an ambassador for sobriety and recovery.
Like many of my favorite film soundtracks, the music for “Phantom of the Paradise” went criminally ignored and failed to hit the Billboard charts. They have not become as iconic as the songs from “Rocky Horror Picture Show”, but they have become fan favorites to a cult following of “Phantom” lovers. But, while “Phantom of the Paradise” was dismissed upon its release, Hollywood did give it a small nod. The film’s score was nominated for an Academy Award in the obscure and confusing category of “Original Song Score and/or Adaptation” That’s not best song, or best score. That’s the best song to score adaptation…. whatever that means. Anyways, it lost to Nelson Riddle for “The Great Gatsby,” but it would mark Paul Williams’ first of many Oscar nominations. The loss wouldn’t hurt Williams that much because in 1976 he won the more prestigious Oscar for Best Song for writing “Evergreen,” sung by Barbara Streisand, in the 1970’s version of “A Star is Born.”
With the cult following of “Phantom of the Paradise,” and the love for the incredible music, I’ve always wondered why hasn’t the film been turned into a stage show? I asked Paul Williams this when I met him, and he explained at the time that while it a common question he often gets asked, he feels that the problem lies in licensing with 20th Century Fox as well as getting Brian DePalma, who holds on to the rights of the story and the characters, interested in such a project. But, in the Billboard interview Williams revealed that in case such a stage show did happen he has written additional songs for the show. Somewhere in Paul Williams’ vault more songs for Swan, Phoenix, Beef and the Phantom exists keeping the mythos of the Paradise alive. Hopefully one day we’ll hear what else is out there. One day the Phantom may live again with more songs and more music. Until then, this Halloween, while everyone else is doing the Time Warp again, I’ll be at home with my Paul Williams records and dreaming about the Paradise.