Almost forty years after the release of Phantom of the Paradise, the music of Paul Williams is experiencing a bit of a revival. His most famous song, “The Rainbow Connection”, appeared in the latest Muppet Movie, and up-and-coming artists like the Alkaline Trio and Rachel Yamagata covered his tunes on The Green Album, a tribute to the Muppets. Fans of the visionary French robotic duo Daft Punk have heard his disembodied voice on their latest album, Random Access Memories. Even one-man corn syrup factory Jason Mraz paid tribute to the songsmith in an event hosted by ASCAP. Still Alive, a highly personal documentary about Williams’ showbiz career and his work as a substance abuse counselor, opened to great acclaim in NYC and LA earlier this year.
Arguably, Williams had been hiding in plain sight since the end of the 1970s. His albums languished out of print, the songs he’d written for other artists were relegated to soft rock stations, and the TV shows on which he’d maintained a high profile (in various senses of the word) had fallen out of fashion. His most prominent attempt at regaining a high profile was the notorious, underrated flop Ishtar. In addition to voiceover acting, frequent broadcasts of the 1974 feature Phantom of the Paradise kept Williams on the pop cultural radar after his moment in the sun had seemingly ended.
Paul Williams had become a bona-fide celebrity prior to the film’s release. Tiny Tim’s recording of “Fill Your Heart”, a song Williams co-wrote with Biff Rose, had earned him a publishing deal with Warner Brothers and the attention of David Bowie, who covered the song on his breakthrough album Hunky Dory. Richard Carpenter commissioned Williams to expand a commercial jingle he’d written for Crocker National Bank into a full song; the resulting track, “We’ve Only Just Begun”, opened the Carpenters’ second album, Close to You. After first making his name in live theatre, Williams put his acting background to good use with his appearances in Watermelon Man and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. However, his involvement with Phantom of the Paradise predates the work for which he became known.
The inspiration for Phantom of the Paradise came to Brian De Palma in 1969, when he heard a Beatles song repurposed as elevator music. A few years later, when the director had started courting investors, he met Paul Williams through a mutual friend at Williams’ record label. De Palma had initially hired Williams to write songs for the movie, but working with Williams had inspired the director to cast him in a leading role. According to the Swan Archives website, Williams rebuffed De Palma’s original suggestion to cast him as Winslow Leach because the singer thought he wasn’t “scary enough”. When the cameras finally rolled, he instead assumed the role of the Faustian impresario Swan.
Williams’ portrayal of the omnipotent and mysterious Swan plays against many of his strengths. Though he fell into the faddish androgyny of the glam rock era, he looked more like Milo Bloom than Aladdin Sane. Throw in his appearances on Carson and afternoon chat shows, and you have a teen idol you could take home to Mom. However, his understated performance as Swan played with his cuddly image in a fascinating way. He delivered some shocking lines of dialogue with a light touch, and he moved through the set of the Paradise with the authority of someone who owned the place. Williams’ performance had such a confidence that Swan’s ascendance seemed not only plausible, but inevitable.
The songs he wrote for the soundtrack showed a wide range of talent – not surprising for someone who had written for both Anne Murray and Three Dog Night. Phoenix’s poignant ballad “Old Souls” could have been a hit for a smooth-voiced yacht rock chanteuse, and songs like “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye” and “Upholstery” showed Williams’ acuity in writing with distinctive artists in mind. The songs that work the best, however, are those in which Williams allows his id to come out and play. “The Hell of It”, the movie’s catchy coda, piles nasty comebacks in triple time to a melody that all but dares you not to sing and dance along. The over-the-top lyrics (“good for nothing, bad in bed/nobody likes you, you’re better off dead”) sound even more satisfying in contrast with the sugar-sweet melody.
Although Phantom of the Paradise didn’t reach a wide audience on its original release, it eventually attracted a cadre of fans (in such glamorous locales as Paris, Rome, and…Winnipeg) that made the film a cult hit. With Paul Williams’ career getting a second wind, there’s talk of a reincarnation of the film. At a recent event at the Museum of the Moving Image, Williams spoke to that possibility. “So many times, before I die, now I’m not hoping that I’ll know how many years I’ll be able to tag onto my time right now, but I would like to think that before I hit room temperature, I’ll get to see this on stage.”