In 1969, Brian De Palma stepped inside an elevator that was playing a Muzak version of a Beatles song, and something sorta snapped. He was 29, and he'd spent almost a decade struggling to make it as a director. He'd pitched endless ideas to the studios, usually getting shot down, sometimes getting ripped off. That day, when he heard the Beatles reduced to muzak mush, he despaired. What was the point of trying to create art? Even if you made something good, corporate America would just turn it into crap.
That moment would inspire De Palma to create Phantom of the Paradise, a strange, glam rock horror musical satire about a genius composer who makes a Faustian pact with a Satanic record producer, gets royally screwed (over and over again—our boy ain't so bright) and winds up a wretched, horribly disfigured, masked creature bent on revenge. De Palma would go on to have a rep as one of the hackingest hacks in Hollywood (this is the guy behind The Untouchables and the first Mission Impossible movie, after all), but when the inspiration for Phantom struck he was still a young, angry, would-be artiste, and the story so obsessed him that he would spend the next four years bringing it to the screen.
When the major studios rejected the script, De Palma eventually managed to raise half of the film's (meager) budget from a real estate developer. He approached various record companies for the rest, and this was how he crossed paths with Paul Williams, the runtish singer/songwriter ("Just An Old-Fashioned Love Song," et al) who became an unlikely sex symbol in the '70s. Williams turned down the phantom role, sensibly reasoning that he just wasn't physically imposing enough, but he did sign on to play Swan, the film's sinister record exec, and he composed the hummable and occasionally inspired score.
Phantom bombed on its initial release, but it spawned an avid cult following (there is even a yearly "Phantompalooza" in Canada), and time has been surprisingly kind to its mix of glam and grotesquerie; Gerrit Graham, as the mincing heavy metal rocker "Beef," is worth the price of admission all by himself. The film features just about all the classic ingredients for a midnight cult fave, with a misfit hero, some twisted sexuality, copious pill-popping, gore, musical numbers and an occasionally incoherent plot—which makes it all the more surprising that it's screening this week at a church. Thankfully the congregation of the Center for Spiritual Discovery is a refreshingly broad-minded bunch, not real big on the guilt and the dogma, and they're gathering to celebrate the film's Rocky Horror-esque sensibility, not to denounce it. (A church that's cool with the scene featuring the big pile of lesbians on Williams' bed? Hey, gimme some of that old time religion.) Flock member Paul Williams himself will appear for a Q&A, and some rare extra footage will be screened.
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PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE SCREENS AT THECENTER FOR SPIRITUAL DISCOVERY, 2850 MESA VERDE DR. E., STE. 111, COSTA MESA, (714) 754-7399, EXT. 23. FRI.; EXTRA FOOTAGE AND PAUL WILLIAMS Q&A, 7 & 8 P.M.; SCREENING, 9 P.M. $10; SEATING IS LIMITED.