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What is Phantom of Winnipeg?

In 1974 acclaimed film director Brian DePalma took an artistic gamble and created his own version of the classic tale Phantom of the Opera. Phantom of the Paradise is an over- the-top glam horror comedy movie musical, featuring a starring role and songs from musical legend Paul Williams (the award-winning writer behind classic songs like “Evergreen”, “We’ve Only Just Begun”, “Rainy Days and Mondays,” and “Rainbow Connection”).

On release, the film landed with a mighty thud and quickly disappeared back whence it came…

… this would be where the story ended if it weren’t for the brave denizens of the small and frigid Canadian city of Winnipeg who didn’t get the memo. Instead local kids (shockingly between the ages of 9-13) turned the film into an enduring phenomenon with local box office grosses larger than the studio blockbuster Jaws.

These little Winnipeggers did this by buying up thousands upon thousands of tickets, sending the soundtrack up the charts and even flying in Williams for a concert where he was treated like a member of the Beatles by the mobs of teens assembled. An entire generation of kids grew up on The Phantom of the Paradise and they continue to keep the cult around the film alive today with sold out screenings and events still happening in Winnipeg to this day.

Phantom of Winnipeg tells the story of the unique fan community that sprung up around the film and the people whose rock and roll obsessions are still going strong decades later. This documentary will be an exploration of an outsider community and the very DNA of fan culture itself told via the true life stories of those fateful Winnipeg kids who just got it, the cast and creative team behind the original film who saw it all go down first-hand and the famous artists who swear that Winnipeg  was definitely on to something.



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Pourquoi Paris?

That Brian De Palma’s 1974 masterpiece Phantom of the Paradise would be a smash success in Winnipeg was expected–but Paris? Pourquoi? What prompted Parisians to put down their profiteroles, bunch up their berets and fork over their francs for the Phantom?

A recent trip (honeymoon in fact!) to the City of Lights may have provided the answer.

But first, school time. Phantom’s basic plot (and its title) can be attributed to French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (The Phantom of the Opera) written by Gaston Leroux and published in 1910. That, in turn, drew its inspiration from the classic French fairy tale La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast), written by French novelist Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and published in 1756.


At the intersection of Death Drive and Swan Song Plaza is the genius of Production Designer Jack Fisk. (photo courtesy of the Swan Archives)

There are also the film adaptations:  Universal Studios produced the first (silent) version in 1925, featuring Lon Chaney, Sr. and Mary Philbin. The scene  in which Chaney’s mask is snatched off is to reveal his quite horrifying visage (featuring ingenious makeup techniques created by Chaney himself) is one of the most shocking and replayed moments in the history of cinema.

A later version was produced in 1943 and features Claude Rains as the Phantom. Notably, the Phantom’s facial disfigurement is caused by accident–him having acid thrown in his face–rather than him being born disfigured as per Leroux’s original story. (This switch became part of the subsequent Phantom retellings, and the manner in which Winslow Leach is disfigured would become even more outrageous in 1974.)

Brian De Palma’s choice of familiar source material to ground his production of Phantom/Phantom of the Fillmore/Phantom of the Paradise would have been a canny box office guarantee of sorts:  consider what his colleague and friend George Lucas said later of Star Wars:  “The title Star Wars was an insurance policy…we calculated that there are something like $8 million worth of science fiction freaks in the USA, and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars.”

Metropolitain: a font and a sign. Photo of the Metro station near Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris, taken by the author, Sept 2015

But while having familiar and also very French source material would have appealed to Parisians, there is something else that would have stuck out like a baguette from a grocery bag:  the film’s typography. Phantom of the Paradise is saturated in the iconic Parisian font Metropolitain, associated with signage over the entrances of the Paris Métro (subway) and designed in the “art nouveau” style in 1899 by Hector Guimard.  As further reinforcement, there is a secondary font that is also associated with art nouveau movement–Bocklin–that had a resurgence in the early 1970s due to its use by Roger Dean on various prog-rock album covers.

French audiences would have been forgiven for expecting to find one of their own having infiltrated the production. But it was a decision made by an American: Production Designer Jack Fisk.  His choice of Metropolitain/Bocklin was an aesthetic masterstroke, one that would have linked, for French audiences, the avant garde tale of Winslow Leach all the way back to the Faust opera being staged in Leroux’s source novel.  And proved that, perhaps, someone was actually paying attention.

The familiar Death Records knock-off black T-shirt, featuring the Metropolitain font. Photo by (and of) the author, Paris, Sept. 2015

The familiar Death Records knock-off black T-shirt, featuring the Metropolitain font. Photo by (and of) the author, Paris, Sept. 2015

One can quite literally not avoid seeing these fonts in Paris. They permeate the city and its signage. Climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower and you’ll see them promoting Cameroon Airlines in the gift shop. Come back down and they’re being used to sell ice cream in the window of a nearby café.

The success of Phantom of the Paradise in Paris is frustratingly anecdotal and remains, even at the end of the year 2015, poorly documented (did it play for a year? Every night at midnight for 10 years? In one cinema or dozens?).  Yet, its influence on young Parisian peepers has been confirmed by all manner of artists, filmmakers and musicians, from Deborah Znaty to Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel Christo de Homem who often cite the film as inspiration for the look and sound of their Daft Punk duo.

I dedicate this post to the people of Paris and offer a heartfelt transatlantic hug from one Phantom town to the other.



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Paul Williams: Still Alive – Winnipeg Premiere

The circle is complete.

Stephen Kessler’s 2011 documentary ‘Paul Williams:  Still Alive’ will have its Winnipeg debut Saturday, March 23rd at the Winnipeg Film Group’s Cinematheque Theatre.  Following the film on opening night, there will be a live Skype interview with the director.

“A moving and affectionate portrait of one of the huge pop icons of 1970, Grammy and Oscar winner Paul Williams, legendary songwriter of Rainy Days and Mondays, We’ve Only Just Begun and Just An Old Fashioned Love Song. The film opens with a scene of Williams in Winnipeg as a guest at Phantompalooza 2 where he was lauded for his role in the film Phantom of the Paradise. Williams wrote songs for David Bowie, Anne Murray and Kermit the Frog (The Rainbow Connection) was an endless guest of TV talk shows and made many movie appearances before he crashed and burned with drugs and alcohol. Still touring, Kessler probes Williams with questions of his fame and current life of playing Vegas nightspots and hotel venues.”

For more information, please visit Cinematheque here.

Read my original review here.



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