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PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE: Rock schlock that's a brilliant hot mess

Paul Williams in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

Anyone can make a bad film, but it takes considerable craft, talent and personality to make something intentionally B-grade that’s really, really good. So what Brian De Palma does in the 1970s bouillabaisse of American culture PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (playing tonight at 12:20A) is nothing short of a brilliant hot mess, if not the template for great schlock.

Keeping that in mind, if I were to make a satire film I’d want it to draw elements from the biggest music genre of the day, get a talented pop star with some writing chops to score it, hire a lot of hot women — but find one whose gestalt captures the moment — and mix it all with some highbrow historical literary reference to Faust. Which Faust? Goethe’s, Gounod’s, Liszt’s or Wilde’s? It doesn’t matter, I’d use them all and go for the jugular with a hero dressed like some overgrown metallic, feather-plucked bird creature.

It’s true that De Palma crams more than enough themes down your throat in 90 minutes: fame, lust, drugs, unrequited love, all through a camp and kitschy lens, but none of it would have worked so well without the genius of Paul Williams. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Paul, he was Mr. Singer Songwriter of AM Radio, lover of humanity and friend to Muppets. Children of the ’70s and early ’80s are having an “Ohhh” moment right about now. Williams worked double duty as the villain onscreen — playing the Devil and Mephistopheles — as well as composer and lyricist off camera. His towhead, diminutive stature, surrounded by a harem of bisexual ladies on a circular mattress, is the ultimate image of creepy rock ‘n’ roll decadence.

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE plays as a brilliant labor of love. For those of you without a camp or funny bone in you, may we suggest other films from De Palma’s catalog like SCARFACE or THE UNTOUCHABLES. I’m not sure what the director was “doing” or how he managed to bottle lightning during production of his rock drama; I’m just glad he did.

I mean, an entire city can’t be wrong about the quality and love of a film. If you’re on the fence or just in the mood for a human safari, plan a trip to Manitoba, Winnipeg, where not one but two Phantompaloozas have been held. It’s sure to be a religious experience. Oh, Canada.

Don’t miss PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE tonight at 12:20A on Sundance Channel.