'Phantom Of The Paradise' And Finding A Movie To Call Your Own

We all have a movie that we consider to be "ours." Whether it be the one that our family showed us as kids, the one we saw on a dark stormy night at a sleepover, or one we just discovered on TV, everyone eventually finds a movie that is as much a part of them as their own vital organs. This seems especially true if that beloved movie of yours maybe isn't exactly loved by everyone else in the world.

This is where the term of "cult" comes into play. By definition, a "cult following" signifies a group of individuals with an incredible amount of passion for a specific aspect of culture. And with so many books, TV series, Broadway shows and movies that never really got the kind of respect their fandom thinks they deserved, the amount of titles that fall into "cult" category is becoming more and more frequent these days. The internet has only helped build cult followings all the faster.

How do we fall in love with a movie like this? Does the cult film choose us or was it destined for us in the stars long ago? Does it involve how our parents raised us and what fundamentally makes us the individuals we become?  I will now ask you to take a deep breath and travel with me to a slightly embarrassing time and place, the time when I (covered in raccoon eye liner) discovered the movie that changed me: Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise.

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Where It All Began

When most kids walk through the halls of their middle/high school, they tend to worry about the important things: drama within their social group, the high tensions of the end of the year dance, and where the heck to change into your gym shorts without turning all the shades of red. But for this particular writer, my concerns within my adolescence tended to be a bit more specific and related to the life-altering decision of whether or not I should become part of a majestic tribe: The Rocky Horror kids.

In my group of my friends, everyone had their quirks. Some of us were in love with Japanese animation and others were enchanted by the tales of J.R.R Tolkien, but the majority directed their passions towards the theater in some way or another. For me, I fell into a bit of each of these categories (along with my passion for film history), and even if I didn't quite get everyone's obsession with Sweeney Todd at the time, I still appreciated them no matter what they were into.

During many a sleepover, my merry group of friends would take me on a cinematic journey. We would travel to a mysterious residence, and meet Tim Curry and the gang. My friends would sing their hearts out, looking at these larger than life characters, as if they were possessed by some musical demon. This is where I came to experience my first true cult movie.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a rich and bizarre history. It tells the story of a young couple whose car breaks down near a mysterious castle. Once they enter said building, a mad doctor and other wacky characters get them involved in some insane musical and sexual shenanigans – and then it gets really weird. When it was originally released in 1975, it was a box office flop, but with eventual midnight screenings, shadow casts, and a future embrace from misfits of all ages, it gained the kind of fandom and infamy that many movies can only dream of.

Even with this knowledg,e I'd look at the fun my friends where having and feel like Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I was the square peg attempting to fit into the black sequined hole that was this movie. In fact, watching Rocky Horror (at the time) felt much like seeing those girls who would buy Ramones or Sex Pistol shirts from Forever 21 – just so they could appear rebellious and "dangerous" among their peer group. But who was the teenage punk poser in this scenario? I only gained such an answer when I turned 14, and accidentally flipped to FX at five in the morning.


The Discovery

When someone discovers a movie, it's very much like the cliché phrase of a light bulb being switched on for the first time. There's initial intrigue, maybe even a bit of confusion, and a bond that never wants to let go. That's how it felt when I finally discovered The Phantom of the Paradise. There was Paul Williams, his incredible (and sometimes ridiculous) songs, jokes that kept me thinking, and odd characters that held onto the little corners of my heart –  all the while wrapped in a stylish package that only director Brian De Palma could provide.

The film tells the story of a composer named Winslow Leach (William Finley) who has his music stolen by a mysterious head of a record label, known only as Swan (played by Paul Williams). After multiple attempts to get his music back, and eventually getting himself disfigured by way of a record-pressing machine, Winslow takes on the persona of the Phantom – a figure seeking revenge within the walls of Swan's new rock palace, The Paradise. Mix this all in with a beautiful young singer, a crazy glam rock star, and the devil, and you got yourself quite the story.

I think at the age of 14, the film junkie in me was on an epic quest to find that cinematic equivalent to a personal holy grail. It had to have spectacular visuals that could inspire all that watched it. It had to tell a story that strayed far beyond the familiar template. And you won't find something more beyond the template than this.

From De Palma's obvious nods to Hitchcock (Psycho being the easiest to spot) to elements from Faust, Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, Touch of Evil – you name it, Phantom of the Paradise has it. The script takes on classic fairy tale plot points and perfectly casts the right players to portray these simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar characters, all the while covered in glitter and fur jackets. And with the added ingredient of Paul Williams' haunting melodies, full of imagery even grander than what ends up on the screen, this film leaves your mind spinning.

Yet even with such splendor, Phantom was a bigger financial bomb than Rocky Horror ever was. It did, however, gain some success in specifically Paris, France and Winnipeg, Canada – but those two markets couldn't save this movie. If anything was ripe to be discovered and embraced by a niche, it was this.


Those Personal Connections

Phantom is clearly the kind of movie that could only have been made in the '70s. The popularity of god-like producer Phil Spector's work was winding down, and the rise of both underground music movements such as punk rock and glam were slowly taking shape. The Beach Boys were "dead", as were the classics of the 50's. All of this is reflected by De Palma and Williams in the changing musical styles of The Juicy Fruits. Winslow represents a forgotten lyrical voice, left behind the times.

This is the kind of music that shaped me. Looking at my musical family tree, this writer was raised by two hippies that turned into hard rock enthusiasts. One was a bit Jimi Hendrix and Queen, while the other was more Lou Reed and Joni Mitchell. Learning and loving The Beatles' White Album was a rite of passage, and knowing all of the words to The Who's Tommy was essential. I was a product of an era – one that a majority of my friends didn't understand, since their focus was on either a boy band or pop-influenced musical.

So when a movie that talks about the shifting of popularity in rock music (with lots of fantastical, insane imagery) came my way, my upbringing instantly made it feel personal. And with a soundtrack written by  one of the greatest songwriters of all time (who has had one foot in the pop music pond and the other in the rock), it seemed that I was destined for me to love this movie. It felt like a movie made for me.

But those strange personal connections continued. My parents resembled a bit of Winslow and his love, Phoenix. My father is a tall and lanky fellow, who sometimes speaks about his thoughts and dreams in ways that people just don't understand. My mom is a shorter, brown haired girl, who has passion for her goals and a fire within her that cannot be dimmed even under the worst of circumstances. No, neither of them ended up being under the control of a music producer at a rock palace, but they did have a bond that seemed to be somewhat written in the stars. Once again, here was a movie speaking to me by accident.

Sometimes, the movies you love the most have nothing to do with your personal life in any way shape or form. But it is hard to ignore these connective threads, especially when you've watched something more than you probably care to mention on a first date. Yet there is a bond that you make with said film that (regardless of how much it reflects your past) cannot be undone. It becomes part of you. You question your friendships with people who don't like it, somethings jokingly and sometimes seriously.


The Bonds We Make

When most people ask me why Phantom of the Paradise means so much to me, they get a mixed bag of responses. There are obviously the threads to my upbringing, but then there are the more recent memories the movie brings. From the beginning of new friendships, discovering other incredible films, or becoming a fan of the talent involved, Phantom gave me so much more than a movie to pop in my DVD player every couple of months. It shaped me into the movie fan I am today.

If it hadn't been for Phantom, I likely wouldn't have dived into the filmography of Brian De Palma, and come to love his other work (including Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables) along with wanting to discover other filmmakers, including Guillermo Del Toro (my favorite director), who says Phantom is one of his all time favorites and even contributed to the special features for Shout Factory's recent Blu-Ray release of the film. I also likely wouldn't have fallen madly in love with Paul Williams. Sure, I might have grown to appreciate him because of his work with the Muppetsbut it wouldn't have been the same as it is now. And once I found out that other artists that I adore (like Edgar Wright) got caught by the Williams bug, I knew I wasn't alone. Geniuses loved what I loved! That's a great feeling.

Phantom of the Paradise has inspired great filmmakers and given a voice to the wacky weirdos that love everything in rock n'roll and film history. And when you push away the insane visuals and over the top characters and performances, you come to realize that we all are Winslow, fighting against our own Swans, wanting someone to listen to our unique interests and take us seriously, so our art can speak for itself.