Sunday, April 23, 2017

and now, the tragic story

Am I about to write a review of a movie that's forty-three years old? Um, possibly.

When I was thirteen, I used to go to the movies with my friends and my family. It was 1974 and I accompanied my parents to see Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Riding on the successful coattails of the 1972's  The Poseidon Adventure, the trend-setter in the disaster film genre, I saw The Towering Inferno, Airport '75 and Earthquake (presented in theater-shaking Sensurround). Although titillated by the provocative TV commercials for the animated adult feature The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, I had to settle for tamer, more age-appropriate offerings like Journey Back to Oz and Herbie Rides Again. When I was out with my friends, we gravitated towards cooler movies, like The Lords of Flatbush (with Henry Winkler and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone) and the rollicking, swashbuckler The Four Musketeers. However, one movie stood out among all the others that year. It was a hodgepodge of horror and music and comedy and just plain weird. I'm speaking, of course, about Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise. (Yes, that Brian DePalma.)

Phantom of the Paradise stars singer/songwriter/actor Paul Williams as Swan, a villainous record impresario who flim-flams a poor sap named Winslow Leach out of his elaborate cantata. The film is chock full of everything to appeal to the cinematic masochist. There's mediocre acting, over-the-top musical productions (as over-the-top as the small budget would allow), and a handful of Paul Williams-penned tunes — none of which come close to "We've Only Just Begun," "Old Fashioned Love Song" or "The Rainbow Connection," though spunky Jessica Harper (in her motion picture debut) was obviously coached to mimic Karen Carpenter in her somber take on "Old Souls" about midway through the film.

By no means is Phantom of the Paradise on the level of Citizen Kane. Nor does it pretend to be. It does, however, possess all the elements of a great cult film. It's one of those "so bad, it's good" films. You know, like a big-screen car wreck at which you cannot look away. It pre-dates The Rocky Horror Picture Show by eleven months, and certainly, in my opinion, deserves the same (dis)respect. Phantom of the Paradise boasts similar production values and hokey story, though the Tim Curry-Susan Sarandon-Barry Bostwick trifecta is far superior to Paul Williams and a handful of glitter. When I was thirteen, Phantom of the Paradise was the coolest movie I ever saw — until it was usurped by Tommy only five months later. But those were a glorious five months.

When my son was in high school, Phantom of the Paradise was released on DVD and I bought it immediately. I was so excited to watch this film with my son, hoping that he would enjoy it as much as I did. He was very leery of my big build-up for the film. In his defense, I had not seen it in thirty years and I only had fuzzy but fond memories of it. So the two of us sat on the sofa as scene after garish scene flashed across our TV screen. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my son giving me that look. "This is the coolest movie you every saw?," he muttered in disbelief. "Well, I remember it being a lot better.," I explained, "Besides, I was thirteen." He was a sport and he sat with me until the end. Then he got up and left the room without saying a word. I got the message, though I think I may have watched it again by myself.

Over the years, I would still pull out my Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack and give it a nostalgic listen. Sure the songs are not particularly memorable, but they are like a visit from an old friend. So you can imagine my excitement when it was announced that there would be a special screening of Phantom of the Paradise at a popular concert venue on the night before Easter. My excitement level could be measured in direct contrast of Mrs. Pincus' reaction when I asked her if she'd like to go. I noted that it was free admission. She gave a defeated exhale and agreed to go. My son even joined us. (Granted, the venue is in the same building where he works.)

All day Saturday, I tweeted about my evening plans and Instagrammed screenshots from the movie (some of which were "liked" by Paul Williams himself, who, for some reason, follows me on social media. Yep, the real Paul Williams.) I was as giddy as I had been when I saw the movie in its initial run.

That evening, we sat in an audience that was comprised of about eight people and a whole lot of empty chairs. I sang along with all the songs. (I still knew all the words.) My son laughed at the terrible acting and my wife checked her eBay auctions and answered emails, pausing several times to ask me "How much longer?" Ninety-one minutes and one big, splashy, puzzling finale later, it was all over.

And it was great!

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