This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
The mysterious Mr. Swan (Paul Williams) is a legendary record executive and producer – Mephistophelian in his bearing, Svengali-esque in his powers of persuasion, and Phil Spector-esque in pretty much every other respect. His current hit group, the Juicy Fruits, have spearheaded a nostalgia wave to the top of the charts, and his Death Records label dominates the industry. Now he wants to open the Paradise – his very own deluxe concert hall – and he wants the perfect music to open it with.
Enter humble Winslow Leach (William Finley), a skilled pianist and songwriter who’s written an epic rock opera based on Faust. Overhearing Leach performing some of his material, Swan sends his thuggish agent Philbin (George Memmoli) to acquire it – having done so, Swan and Philbin cut Leach out of the process entirely. As Leach tries harder and harder to get them to listen to him, Swan’s empire wrongs him more and more – first they throw him out, then they beat him up, then they have him arrested on trumped-up drugs charges and sent to Sing Sing, where the governor arbitrarily has his teeth removed and replaced with steel teeth. Flying into a rage when he hears a news report that Swan intends to have the Juicy Fruits perform his material, Leach escapes and goes on a rampage against Swan’s business interests, during which he incurs further horrible injuries, loses his voice entirely, and is thought to have died.
Under the circumstances, there’s only one thing to reasonably do: sneak into the Paradise, cobble together a spooky costume from the props cupboard, and do the whole Phantom of the Opera thing to terrorise Swan. Trouble is, Swan is difficult to scare – and very persuasive. On encountering the transformed Leach he offers to put on Faust the way Leach wants it, once Leach has rewritten it to suit a new vocalist. Having fallen in love with showbiz hopeful Phoenix (Jessica Harper in her first movie appearance), Leach agrees and signs a contract – in blood, naturally – on the condition that Phoenix be the lead singer.
Swan, naturally, reneges on the deal – leading to an escalation of the conflict between them that reveals supernatural twists to Swan’s history and culminating in a chaotic final sequence which is a triumph of carefully choreographed chaos. Characters die and hearts are broken – but the party’s so good and the music’s so hot that barely anyone notices. All this is naturally set to a great soundtrack – penned by Paul Williams himself – concluding with perhaps the best song of the lot over the credits, a catchy Elton John-esque number about how the fallen characters’ lives were totally meaningless and they’re better off dead.