How Phantom of the Paradise is the Daft Punk Story

Daft Punk—the two French musicians in futuristic helmets responsible for the feel-good anthem of the summer—owe much to Brian De Palma's classic 1974 cult film Phantom of the Paradise.

After serving  many years as a veteran radio producer and video-journalist at the CBC, Tom Jokinen set it all aside in 2006 to be an apprentice...

What does Daft Punk eat for breakfast? We’re not meant to know. The French pop duo behind the summertime hit “Get Lucky,” which can be heard leaking from the headphones of every bus passenger sitting next to me since May, manage their anonymity carefully. They just want to make music. Biography is unimportant. Onstage and in the media they wear matching leather jumpsuits and pimped-out snowmobile helmets, one in gold and one in silver. They may be standing in line in front of you at Safeway right now and you wouldn’t know, despite the fact that they are the most famous musicians in Christendom.

In interviews they are polite but cagy: Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter (if those are their real names) told Q magazine that they wrote “Get Lucky” to cheer people up. “Everybody is taking part in this phenomenon,” said de Homem-Christo. “But it’s not the music, it’s the people. It’s like we light up a match and people, how you say, whuh-whuh-whuh!” Which is a nice way of saying: no comment. The point is not to understand Daft Punk but to listen to the album and stop asking questions.

But certain biographical details have leaked. Count on the muckrakers at the New York Times: in a June interview, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo (can we just call him Guy from here on?) talked about their musical influences, in particular the work of Paul Williams, who appears on the new album Random Access Memories. Williams, of course, is the gnomish one-man Tin Pan Alley of the ’70s who wrote for Barbra Streisand (“Evergreen”), The Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun”), and Kermit the Frog (“Rainbow Connection”), but is also (barely) known for starring in and writing the music for Brian De Palma’s camp-horror film Phantom of the Paradise in 1974. In the Times, Bangalter described it as “our favorite film, the foundation for a lot of what we’re about artistically.” He and Guy admitted to seeing it more than 20 times each as kids.

In order to push Daft Punk kicking and screaming into a biographical context, it’s worth looking at Phantom again with fresh eyes, which I did, with a DVD copy I acquired in Winnipeg in 2006 at the second annual Phantompalooza event. When Phantom came out, it flopped everywhere except two cities: Paris, and Winnipeg. We can assume Guy and Bangalter saw it in Paris, but it if there’s a spiritual home for the film it’s in Winnipeg, which has held no less than two fan conventions in the past 10 years. In 2006, they showed Phantom at the old Garrick Theatre and flew in the cast, including Williams, William Finley (who played the title role), and Gerret Graham, a.k.a. Beef, the sexually ambiguous glam-rock star whose shower scene is the best ripoff of Hitchcock’s Psycho ever put to film (it involves a toilet plunger instead of a knife). Why Winnipeg should embrace a movie like Phantom can only be explained by its historical penchant for, how you say, the whuh-whuh-whuh, in art, in hockey, in film: it’s a place that likes what confounds the mainstream.

Phantom is a slapstick rock opera in which Williams and De Palma (before he became a Hollywood property) seemed to unhitch themselves from commercial considerations for the sake of laughs at the expense of a clueless music industry. It made fun of glam-rock and metal and country and Carpenter-esque balladry at a time when the industry had no idea what would stick anymore, conditions not unlike the present, in which Daft Punk has managed to thrive. The story is simple, and steals liberally from both film history and literature. Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a nobody songwriter who catches the attention of Swan (Paul Williams), the ageless impresario who makes and then dashes careers. Leach struggles to finish his life’s work, a “rock cantata” based on the story of Faust, only to see it stolen by Swan. In retaliation, Leach aims to destroy Swan’s record company, only to run afoul of an LP pressing machine which destroys his face, forcing him to take on a theatrical disguise: a birdlike metal helmet and leather jumpsuit. Sound familiar so far?

By way of negotiating a truce, Swan cuts a deal with a now-desperate Leach to finish Faust under contract, a contract signed in blood. Leach is locked away in a studio, a panoptical capsule of analog gear and synthesizers like a Rick Wakeman wet dream, where, with the help of a suitcase full of pills, a quill pen, and a red candle, he completes his project. Double-crossing ensues: Leach/Phantom has written Faust for the love of his life, a struggling backup singer named Phoenix, but Swan adapts the cantata into a gothic metal spectacle featuring a crowd-pleasing blockhead named Beef who has trouble staying upright on his own platform shoes. Leach again plots revenge, but Swan has him bricked into his electronic lair. I won’t spoil it (see it yourself, Phantom is available on iTunes) except to say that bricks can’t hold back a man in a mask driven by love and music.

The movie’s a deliberate hoot: pure entertainment that would never have passed a Hollywood focus group if anyone dared to make it today. But seeing it now you could easily call it the Daft Punk Story: nerdy songwriter(s) triumph over a creative industry at sea, by bricking themselves into technology with nothing more than a quill pen, paper, and candle (an early online trailer for Random Access Memories shows Guy and Banglater, in costume, in a dark, otherworldly recording studio much like the one in the movie). By donning the mask and costume they reject the cult of personality (which in Phantom only dooms both Swan and Beef) in favour of the notes on the page, the mystical whuh-whuh.

Seeing it in 2013, another odd theme emerges: the heroic value of anonymity. With new revelations about PRISM in the States and the mining of meta-data by “friendly” governments and commerce, the appeal of public exposure of our private lives may be waning, the confessional demands of Twitter and Facebook notwithstanding. Daft Punk are ahead of the curve: by challenging the impulse to know everything there is to know about pop stars, they are setting an example. We would all benefit from the mask, the avatar--choke the data miners by denying them a source. And then quietly do your life’s work. They got the idea from Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, an unlikely source for a manifesto and a knockout film.

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After serving  many years as a veteran radio producer and video-journalist at the CBC, Tom Jokinen set it all aside in 2006 to be an apprentice undertaker at a family-run funeral home and crematorium in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This drastic vocational change at the age of 44 resulted in the book Curtains, an exploration of our culture's relationship with the dead, dying, and left behind. The author and his wife currently reside in Ottawa, Ontario.