"First time watching Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Masterpiece!"
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Lindsay Ellis: So, when we were talking about how to approach this season (since originally, the conceit of this show was that we weren't going to do any movies), Kaveh texted me this "I can't believe this exists!" And it was, of course, Brian De Palma's Phantom Of The Paradise. And that was where I was like, Oh-- well, there's a thing that firmly exists only in the realm of film, and doesn't, a little bit, have a toe in the theater (at least to my knowledge). So I was like, you know what? If we're going to cover this masterpiece, we have to look at film. And so that is why we are here.
Kaveh Taherian: Yes.
Lindsey: [looking at guest host Angelina Meehan and laughing] And she's dancing!
Kaveh: I was going to say, you can't see, but Angie's dancing. She's one step short of doing a back-flip right now.
Angelina Meehan: This is legitimately one of my favorite movies. I'm so, so hyped.
Angelina: Yes. It's one of those movies that you hear about it, and you're like, this movie can't possibly exist. And then you see it, and it kicks ass on so many levels-- I've never shown it to somebody who wasn't immediately like, "Okay, this is like balls to the wall," and I admire it for that. So...
Chris Martin: And let me ask you: I love that you have "Swanage" on your T-shirt. What is the significance of that?
Alan Cross: Oh! This is my sister's tribute band. My sister is a... Well, I'm from Winnipeg, Manitoba, originally. Uh, that is the city on the planet that is the biggest, has the biggest fan base for the movie Phantom Of The Paradise.
Chris Martin: Right...
Alan Cross: Brian De Palma film from 1974.
Chris Martin: Okay...
Alan Cross: And my sister has even got a Phantom Of The Paradise tribute band... Swanage was the name of the mansion where Paul Williams' character, named Swan, lived as he tortured poor Winslow Leach into making a cantata for the opening of his club, called the Paradise.
Chris Martin: What an amazing answer to an innocent T-shirt question!
Alan Cross: I will get you a T-shirt.
Chris Martin: [laughing] Thanks, man.
The Los Angeles Times' Randall Roberts states that by 1974, "TONTO had become a circuitous beast that included machines made by Moog, ARP, Oberheim, Roland and Yamaha; drum controllers, sequencers and, later, MIDI converters; and thick gauge wire procured from surplus supplies made for the Apollo mission and Boeing 747 manufacturing. Those familiar with Brian De Palma’s cult classic film Phantom of the Paradise have seen TONTO in action. It provides the setting for a wild scene in which protagonist Winslow Leach, donning a silver owl’s mask, performs a surreally ridiculous song on the contraption."
Roberts mentions that "Cecil was said to be furious at TONTO’s unauthorized appearance in the film." Indeed, Cecil talked about this a bit in a 2017 feature article for Music Works, written by Jesse Locke:
The pair’s invention and ambition led to an intense four-year collaboration with Stevie Wonder. The legendary artist wrote nearly 150 songs before the tracks were selected and released on his groundbreaking albums Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. During this time, TONTO was expanded to include two Moogs, two ARP 2600s, four Oberheim SEMs, modules from EMS, Roland, and Yamaha, drum controllers, sequencers, and MIDI converters, all fused together with Boeing 747 airplane wire. Jim Storyk constructed the woodwork at Electric Ladyland, studied geodesic domes with Buckminster Fuller, and then designed TONTO’s singular cabinets. Its primitive prototypes were replaced by synths rolled out on a tea trolley or a gurney, and its six-foot curves were ergonomically tailored to match Cecil and Margouleff’s heights. In a 1984 Keyboard magazine article (later adapted for the 2011 anthology Synth Gods), writer John Diliberto points to the influence of their electronic Afrofuturism. “This collaboration changed the perspectives of black pop music as much as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper altered the concept of white rock.”
While Wonder’s TONTO era resulted in Grammy awards, lucrative tours, and massive sales for Motown Records, Cecil claims he “never made a penny from the royalties.” Cecil bought out Margouleff in 1975 and forged a new partnership with the poet, musician, and activist Gil Scott-Heron. At the height of another fruitful period, TONTO appeared on the cover of Scott-Heron’s album 1980, which featured synth-powered songs about nuclear protests and the hardships of illegal Mexican immigrants.
TONTO went on to help shape hit releases from Minnie Riperton, the Isley Brothers, the Doobie Brothers, and countless other artists. It famously lived briefly in the studio of Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh in the mid 1990s, and was immortalized in a parody in The Simpsons. Its best-known visual appearance, in Brian DePalma’s cult film Phantom of the Paradise, allegedly occurred against Cecil’s will.
“TONTO was at the Record Plant in Los Angeles when we were working there with Stevie,” he recounts. “During that two-year period, the studio rented the room to the film and told them they could use TONTO as a prop. No one said a word to us. When I walked into the studio and saw they were filming it, I blew a gasket!
“We eventually negotiated that they could use the footage if they paid us for the visual rights,” he continues. “The other part of the deal was that whenever TONTO appeared on screen the music was supposed to be played by the real instrument. Of course it ended up being Paul Williams’ piano instead. I’ve seen the movie a few times and it always [used to make] my blood boil. [But] I learned to let it go long ago.”
Bangalter and Homem-Christo’s cinephilia formed Electroma into a transformative experience for them, as their love of films was already hardwired into their identities long before the film was even conceived. Much of their music has been described by the pair as a love letter to the memories of films they bonded over in children, principally Brian De Palma’s satirical rock opera Phantom of the Paradise. Two other film projects they’ve worked on – the music video collection DAFT: A Story About Dogs, Androids, Firemen and Tomatoes and Discovery’s extended anime tie-in Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem – are steeped in the pair’s seemingly vast knowledge of international cinema and television. DAFT boasts direction from a collection of beloved auteurs ranging from Spike Jonze to Michel Gondry, while Interstella 5555 was born from a collaboration with the pair’s childhood hero Leiji Matsumoto, who has penned innumerable space opera manga and anime.
Electroma is unique in that it was the first and only film that was entirely Daft Punk’s own organism; they penned the script, co-directed, and Bangalter served as cinematographer, spending pre-production reading over 200 copies of the filmmaking magazine American Cinematographer to prepare. Electroma is no mere promotional add-on from Human After All; it’s a fully-formed feature with shades of independent cinema running through its circuited veins. The horrific, surreal masks the pair don in order to appear human mimic the nightmarish imagery of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. The robots’ ill-fated journey into the desert mirrors the doomed trip that forms the center of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. The twisted depictions of suburbia and the otherworldly image of Homem-Christo wandering the wasteland alone evokes the mood of Derek Jarman’s The Garden. Through this confluence of cinematic flourishes, Electroma quietly highlights what Daft Punk’s discography was always trying to: conformity is an ironically surreal prison, and the only way to free ourselves is to let go and feel the music. Otherwise, we self-destruct.
This idea has been cemented by the duo’s use of the film’s climactic scene as a eulogy for their career, with some noticeable tweaks to the original film further emphasising Electroma’s importance to their legacy. The original film ends with Homem-Christo’s lonely robot giving into despair over the death of his silver-domed partner, sealing his own fate by smashing his helmet and using the broken glass to set himself ablaze in the desert sun. The new epilogue now gives the pair a more bittersweet ending, holding on to Homem-Christo walking off into the sunset, the hauntingly beautiful choral section of their Random Access Memories track ‘Touch’ sending him on his way. “Hold on, if love is the answer you’re home” croons over and over as 28 years of history are summarized in a few poignant frames. The newly formed juxtaposition of music and imagery affirms the romantic humanism that runs through these funky robots’ souls, reminding us of their career-long belief that our connections to one another, whether through music or other means, form the basis of our souls. By repurposing Electroma in this way, Daft Punk said goodbye with their motherboards laid bare for all the world to see.
Much will rightfully be written about Daft Punk’s musical output in the coming weeks, but their cinematic output shouldn’t be ignored. Electroma, in particular, offered a gateway to cinematic history beyond the mainstream, putting the duo’s forebears in direct conversation with the contemporary. It crystallised Bangalter and Homem-Christo as great purveyors of the human experience not just through their music, but through every sense of what it means to be alive. They visualised everything they were feeling and subsequently imparted the lessons of that experience to us, as they always graciously did. On the strength of that gift alone, the spirit of Daft Punk will live on forever.
Here they’ve “sampled” the vintage production of their favorite records, using the same analog equipment, techniques, and musicians. Instead of sampling Chic, they brought in Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers to play guitar on two tracks. Instead of sampling Quincy Jones’ productions for Michael Jackson in the 1980s, they brought in the actual session musicians who played on the albums—including John J.R. Robinson, a drummer on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, and the guitarist Paul Jackson, who played on Thriller. They’ve “sampled” the clothes, too (Daft Punk’s tight sequined jackets resemble Michael Jackson’s) and the fonts (the cursive lettering on the cover of Random Access Memories resembles the cover of Thriller). Daft Punk even “sampled” their favorite movie—the 1974 Brian De Palma schlock classic Phantom of the Paradise—by inviting in Paul Williams, the movie’s composer and lead actor, to sing the album’s epic, melodramatic centerpiece, “Touch.”
Phantom of the Paradise is key to understanding Daft Punk’s aesthetic. In the movie, a nerdy songwriter is reborn as a phantom who attempts to exact revenge on an evil svengali record producer named Swan. In one scene in the movie, Swan traps the phantom—now wearing a tight black leather jacket and a robot helmet—in a sophisticated recording studio walled with racks of analog gear. The phantom, whose vocal cords have been destroyed, speaks through a talk box attached to his chest, sounding remarkably like a vocodered lyric in a Daft Punk song.
It’s easy to see why the rock opera was catnip for Daft Punk, who claim to have watched it more than 20 times—the movie is completely over-the-top, drenched in pathos, and layered with in-jokes and sideways references, much like the band’s music. Daft Punk’s black leather outfits in their 2006 feature film, Electroma, seemed inspired by the phantom. “Electroma is a combination of all the movies we like, paying a big, almost unconscious homage to them,” de Homem-Christo told Stop Smiling in 2008. “There are so many different influences: In the end, it becomes such a melting pot of everything that it resembles something else altogether. We love cinema the same way we do music—we’re from a generation that doesn’t segregate.”
“Touch” is the apex of Random Access Memories, the total realization of the album’s ambitious reach. There’s nothing cool about it, and it takes guts to make music like this in 2013 on such a grand scale. It’s Daft Punk’s love letter to Phantom of the Paradise, and it’s schmaltzy and deeply weird. The lyrics are, well, daft (“Touch, sweet touch/ You’ve given me too much to feel”), but the lyrics are beside the point; Williams’ graceful vocal delivery is awe-inspiring. It’s simultaneously melancholy and uplifting; the moment where Williams’ voice trails off and “Get Lucky” begins is a great moment in pop music.
The mini-opera “Touch” may seem indulgent, but remember that the robots got the idea for masks watching Paul Williams in Brian De Palma’s outrageous 1974 musical Phantom of the Paradise. Was Daft Punk this molting, unpredictable, ever-changing thing, or was it more like an operating system whose day-to-day mechanics progressed through the years but always in service to a steady and unchanging core mission?
When I hosted a 40th anniversary screening of Phantom Of The Paradise at the Cinerama dome, there were lots of superfans in the house; not least Daft Punk (sans masks). Pre-show, their manager asked politely that I not say they were present. I can now reveal they sat in G9 & G10.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The Phantom of the Opera
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
Femme Fatale (2002)
Dressed to Kill (1980)
Body Double (1984)
Casualties of War (1989)
The Black Dahlia (2006)
One From the Heart (1982)
New York, New York (1977)
Dionysus in ‘69 (1970)
Blow Out (1981)
The Fury (1978)
The Untouchables (1987)
The Wedding Party (1969)
Hi Mom! (1970)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The Cask of Amontillado
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Everybody Loves Raymond
Young Frankenstein (1974)
The Day of the Locust (1975)
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Gimme Shelter (1970)
The Earrings of Madame De… (1953)
Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)
I was recently a guest on this fun show @deadbeatfilmsociety talking all about one of my favorite films #phantomoftheparadise !! 👻 🎹⚡️ it came out in 1974 and influenced a ton of other movies. And featured TONTO the monster synth that predated the Fairlight (The Original New Timbral Orchestra) best known for this movie and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”.
Just realized I never shared the thing that was THE turning point in musical direction for me from @ledzeppelin type power trios to glam-metal...'74's Phantom of the Paradise! Not a big film in the US but huge in Canada. It changed my world! Thanks Paul Williams & Brian DePalma!
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