Wednesday, January 13, 2016

TMFW 123 - You Wouldn't Know It, It Lives in Canada

Today's TMFW is the story of the 1974 musical film The Phantom of the Paradise, which had the odd distinction of being both a box office flop and a giant hit.  

The movie, directed by Brian De Palma (who went on to direct CarrieScarface, and The Untouchables, among others), is a "musical horror film" and music business satire.  It is loosely based on Phantom of the Opera, with references to Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray thrown in for good measure.  Characters include the singularly-named Swan, and Phoenix, and Beef.  The plot, as written up in Wikipedia, features a disfigured music composer, a "satanic record producer," a character framed for drug dealing, experimental tooth extractions in a prison (?), doo wop and surf groups called The Juicy Fruits and the Beach Bums, an on-stage electrocution, a stabbing, and a deal with the devil that can only be undone by destruction of a videotape.  (I read it several times and am still not sure I get it.)    

The movie was campy and bright and intentionally over-the-top. (You can hear the whole soundtrack here, which is pretty cool and earned Oscar and Golden Globes nominations.)  In many ways, it resembled The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which came just 10 months afterwards.  But instead of finding success or becoming a cult classic like the latter film, The Phantom of the Paradise fell right on its face.  It was a box office flop everywhere it played.

Everywhere, that is, except Winnipeg.  In Winnipeg, it killed.  

The story is told in detail on this Canadian Phantom of the Paradise fan site.  For reasons nobody can explain, though the film lasted only one week in other big Canadian cities like Vancouver and Edmonton and Calgary, it ran for 18 weeks in Winnipeg from December 1974 to May 1975.  That's 2 weeks longer than the 1975 box office champ Jaws.  Local sales of the soundtrack - estimated to be 20,000 records in Winnipeg alone - propelled the record to gold status.  (In Canada, it takes 50,000 records to hit gold.  That means that Winnipeg, a city that at that time made up about 2.5% of Canada's total population, accounted for 40% of the certification.  Holy cow.) 

Since its initial run, The Phantom of the Paradise has enjoyed continuous success in the City, with sold-out appearances by cast members, occasional midnight showings, an IMAX run, and even an every-other-year Phantom-palooza that celebrates the movie and what it means to Winnipeggers.  Truth is stranger than fiction.  


BONUS FACT: Though it was a box-office flop overall, The Phantom of the Paradise has found a good deal of respect and appreciation since then.  As time has gone on, the film has gotten a lot of love from critics and audiences.  The arts blog The Dissolve did a series of posts on the film last year (including one entry on the unlikely success in Winnipeg), Rotten Tomatoes gives it a critics score of 95% and an audience score of 84%, and the special-edition Blu-Ray on Amazon has 4.5 stars across over 350 glowing reviews.  This New York Times write-up from the summer of 2014 nicely lays out just how goofy, and now how beloved, it is.  Winnipeggers are probably wondering what took everybody so long to figure it out.

BONUS FACT 2:  The inspiration for today's title is the cultural trope of the "fake girlfriend in Canada," used (to me, anyway) for the first time in The Breakfast Club.  It most recently appeared in the Pixar movie Inside Out.  Here's a quick, fun little article from GQ offering some theories about why Canada is the place with such a large (imaginary) population.

BONUS FACT 3:  One other quirky distinction of Winnipeg is their love of Slurpees.  Despite an average winter temperature (that's over three months) of 10 degrees F, last year Manitoba was named the "Slurpee Capital of the World" for the 16th (!!!) straight year.  Their feat got them written up in the Wall Street Journal.

BONUS FACT 4:  I can't write a whole music post about Winnipeg without linking to The Weakerthans' fantastic lament/celebration of their hometown: "One Great City!"  It features the remarkably straightforward (and yet somehow sweet and complex) refrain "I hate Winnipeg."

BONUS OBSERVATION 4.5: The first line of the song is "Late afternoon another day is nearly done; a darker gray is breaking through a lighter one."  Having spent a fair amount of time in Winnipeg (I did a deal there several years ago), that visual perfectly describes the transition of day to night in winter.  Dark gray overcomes light gray, and it's time to pack up and leave the office.

BONUS FACT 4.75:  The song also features the great line "The Guess Who sucked, the Jets were lousy anyway," seeming to anticipate and dismiss any defense of what makes the City cool.  On a 2007 tour, The Weakerthans played that song and sang that line in Winnipeg, at the Burton Cummings Theatre for the Performing Arts.  Burton Cummings is the lead singer and principal songwriter of the Guess Who.  I enjoy that.

BONUS FACT 5:  Not to pile on Winnipeg, which is actually quite a nice place in the summertime, but The Simpsons had a good gag in a Season 16 episode where Homer visits a Canadian pharmacy to smuggle prescription drugs back to the US.  The entry to Winnipeg has a sign reading "NOW ENTERING WINNIPEG.  WE WERE BORN HERE, WHAT'S YOUR EXCUSE?"

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