"WITH A STORY THAT WOULD MAKE THE THEATRE DU GRAND GUIGNOL THINK THEY SHOULD TONE IT DOWN A LITTLE"
Yesterday, William Kuechenberg posted The Cracked Guide To Cult Movies: Phantom Of The Paradise. "Of all the entries in this series, Phantom of the Paradise is almost certainly the one with the most coherent plot," Kuechenberg states in in the "What's this movie about" section near the start of the article. "It centers around the villainous record producer and music magnate Swan, who looks like if cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch got really into coke." Here's a bit from Kuechenberg's "What makes it a cult movie" section:
It’s a kickass movie, first of all, with awesome set design and costumes and a story that would make the Théâtre du Grand Guignol think they should tone it down a little. The movie shares DNA with several cult films, which kind of puts it in that orbit by default. For example, Jessica Harper, the actress who plays Phoenix, also plays Janet Weiss in a kinda-sorta sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show called Shock Treatment. It also doesn’t hurt that movie is a musical with music that honestly rips ass. “Rips ass?” Is that what the kids are saying? Or, wait, is that farting?
The point is the music is legitimately good, thanks in no small part to Paul Williams. Williams plays Swan, but he also wrote and sang most of the film’s music. You might know Williams from his extensive work with the Muppets, or if you’re dealing with new and exciting forms of back pain like I am you may know him from his cameo on Dexter’s Laboratory:
There’s something inherently funny and fascinating about seeing a man responsible for writing some of the most important music of our childhoods – playing the literal devil and being a huge horny sleazebag on screen. It’s awesome.
Phantom of the Paradise is also a cult film because it’s one of those movies that was never commercially or critically successful but had a huge influence on later artists. When director Guillermo Del Toro (or as US audiences know him, “Billy the Bull”) was a teenager in Mexico City, he waited in line for Paul Williams to sign his copy of the Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack. Many years later, he’d ask Williams to write the lyrics to the stage adaptation of Pan’s Labyrinth. Edgar Wright also cites it as a huge influence. Daft Punk claim to have seen the movie together more than twenty times – and when you remember that the hero of a story is a man in a black suit with a metal helmet obscuring his face that sings in a mechanical cadence of another man over songs he composes on a synthesizer, you start to wonder if perhaps Phantom of the Paradise is more responsible for the birth of electronic music than readily-available MDMA and a music industry looking for an ever-cheaper production model.
Finally, the movie is of note to big music nerds like me for one very particular reason. I’ve mentioned several times that Winslow writes his music on “a synthesizer,” but it would perhaps be more accurate to say he composes his music on “the synthesizer:”
The gigantic instrument he’s sitting inside of is TONTO. No, not the Native American character Johnny Depp racistly portrayed in – holy crap, 2013? Didn’t we know better by then? No, this TONTO is an acronym for The Original New Timbral Orchestra, and if you don’t know the name you’ve definitely heard the sound. Stevie Wonder utilized it on many of his most famous songs, including the iconic riff in “Superstition” that’s so damn funky it’ll make you want to start wearing a vest with no shirt in daily life. It shows up in a huge range of hits from the 70s and beyond.