Exploring the world through global cinema

Phantom Power

Greetings. World On Film is currently taking a break from weekly foreign film reviews. During this time, I will be taking some short trips and sidesteps into matters closely or very distantly connected with the blog’s goal, but certainly always on all things film. This week therefore, I bring you…

Still Powerful

The famous unmasking scene: still powerful 85 years later.

85 years ago, audiences gasped with audible horror as Lon Chaney’s self-applied make-up was revealed to all by an unsuspecting Mary Philbin in the silent classic adaptation of The Phantom Of The Opera. Reportedly, Chaney kept the full extent of the prosthetics to himself before the actual filming for maximum impact, allowing for astonishment on both sides of the camera. The unmasking scene is still memorable to modern audiences – I was in my early teens when I purchased a fairly average print of the film on VHS back in the early 90s and remember being quite unprepared for the skeletal apparition that burst onto the screen. It was proof to me even then that the pre-talkies still worked for a modern audience.

“I was in my early teens…and remember being quite unprepared for the skeletal apparition that burst onto the screen.”

Film soundtracks were of course continuous in those days. Often, rather than specially-created and timely musical motifs designed to heighten certain moments of comedy and tragedy, they were a continual, live narrative that a theatre organist had to maintain throughout the entire duration, reacting instinctively to what they saw as it happened. I wonder if they were given advance screenings so as to get a feel for the unfolding visuals, or whether that first night was the true test of their abilities. At the same time, specially-written scores began to appear for the major motion pictures, with organists handed the sheet music they were to play. Doubtless, Phantom is an example of this.

The Opus 1680, built by Wurlitzer, and used by organists to provide the soundtrack to many an RKO picture, 'The Phantom Of The Opera' included.

Decades after the silent film was dismissed as little more than a laughable aberration of primitive technology, its extant fans gave birth to the alternative soundtrack. Ironically, perhaps the most famous of these is little more than serendipity: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon album was declared an uncanny musical accompaniment to The Wizard Of Oz – something I have yet to confirm for myself, mainly because finding that scene where an extra supposedly hangs himself is little motivation for having to actually sit through what is probably one of the most overanalyzed cinema musicals of all time.

Everyone’s A Musician

The rise of youtube has of course meant that anyone with a passing knowledge of video editing can produce short mashups that totally alter the meaning of the original subject matter. Inevitably, they’re hit and miss, but there are some really thought-provoking and of course genuinely hilarious results, such as Disturbing Strokes:

“The rise of youtube has of course meant that anyone with a passing knowledge of video editing can produce short mashups that totally alter the meaning of the original subject matter.”

Enter Rock, Enter Rick

Universal brought Technicolor to the Phantom. Several years later, the masque scene would be computer-coloured, though as yet not the whole film. Does it need to be?

Far more interesting, however, are musicians who intentionally ‘re-score’ a film. This is precisely what prolific keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman set out to do in 1991. Phantom Power was specifically designed to be played along with the original Phantom Of The Opera as a modern take on the ancient swirling organ lines of another era. Wakeman’s efforts were, in some ways, a distant musical forerunner to the significant contemporary efforts of comedian Paul Merton, who regularly tours Britain screening classic silent comedies at their correct speed to the tune of a modern organist’s improvisations. It’s an interesting attempt, given that most people tend to disregard pop culture roughly ten years before their birth as too distant to have any relevance. Merton’s ongoing success with his screenings proves that it’s simply a matter of putting yourself in the right frame of mind.

Phantom Power was however a commission from Universal – or rather the music itself was, as the album features only 51 of the 90 minute continuous score. This early 90s print, which comes before the speed-corrected version that would be released on dvd the following decade, is filled with scratches, and tinting has been applied to all but the famous colour scene of Erik in full Red Death regalia.

“[‘Phantom Power is] a modern take on the ancient swirling organ lines of another era.”

Wakeman albums of the late 80s/early 90s frequently centred around the KORG synthesizer. Pictured: a KORG M1 circa 1988.

The audience is therefore faced with what is already quite a different Phantom of the Opera before the soundtrack is even considered. I am not a fan of colourisation for colourisation’s sake. It ranks up there with remaking foreign films simply for the sector of audience who declares they go to movies ‘to relax, not to read’. Restoration work involving picture clean-up and speed correction on the other hand, is an example of the ways technology can be put to great use. It’s hard to take a film seriously when everyone on screen seems to have ADHD, especially when physical acting has to convey so much more due to the absence of sound.

Anachronism

Earlier, I mentioned that the Wakeman sound was intended as a ‘modern take’, and so it is – for 1990. Rock as we know sees major stylistic shifts every 10 years or so, but you can literally pinpoint the period when synth keyboards are involved. It’s almost hard to believe that the late 80s/early 90s faux vibraphone and harpsichord were as in vogue as one could get at the time, yet they are now just as anachronistic and primitive-sounding as the computers that powered them – the eternal evolutionary punishment for digital hubris.

An example of Universal's colourisation, or tinting as it should more accurately be called.

Thus is the soundtrack as much out of time as the film itself, yet far more ephemeral: as always, until there is a synthesizer for every epoch, only organic music can survive the generations. For many, watching a silent film already requires placing one’s self into a particular frame of mind, so far removed is it from the cinema of today. 20 years on, we now have to employ schizophrenia in order to suspend disbelief in three different time periods: 1925, 1990 and whenever subsequently you’re attempting it.

“It’s almost hard to believe that the late 80s/early 90s faux vibraphone and harpsichord were as in vogue as one could get at the time, yet they are now just as anachronistic and primitive-sounding as the computers that powered them – the eternal evolutionary punishment for digital hubris.”

Accompanying the ironically retro keyboards to create a rock ensemble, we also have bass, lead guitar and a drum kit. Vocals are provided by longtime Wakeman colleagues Ashley Holt (first heard on the album Journey To The Centre Of The Earth), Chrissie Hammond (of the band Cheetah), and, reaffirming the keyboard virtuoso’s prog rock roots, opera tenor Ramon Remedios. Not only is this a Phantom soundtrack with vocals, but clearly defined songs in between descriptive synth mood pieces. Thus does the music only partially attempt to match the action on-screen, while the songs themselves are more thematically tied to the story as a whole and the dominating character of the Phantom himself:

Everybody knows him

Everybody shows him

Every door is locked

But still you get a visit from the Phantom

'The Myths & Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table' - one of Wakeman's signature concept albums.

The presence of Ramedios also means a number of significant gear changes throughout. Holt’s husky tones swap intermittently with Hinde’s higher, but no less powerful vocal thrusts through definitive period-Wakeman rock pieces, in between which, Ramedios appears with several self-contained arias. Occasionally, he’ll be accompanied by Hammond, who is more rock than opera singer, but certainly pitch-perfect. She also gets behind the microphone for softer ballads, such as ‘You Can’t Buy My Love’. To say that there’s a lot going on in Phantom Power is an understatement: the budget may not have stretched to more than the most basic of sound equipment, but the ambition is clearly evident.

Having heard just about all of Rick’s catalogue at some point, I would place the quality of the music somewhere in the middle. He is best-known for defining the prog-rock genre in the 70s as part of the supergroup Yes and his own concept albums – most notably The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, and The Myths & Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table. These and several other efforts are in my opinion absolute masterpieces, not only of progressive rock, but of true creativity and musical wonder. I’ve been listening to Journey as far back as I can remember listening to anything, and it’s still provokes a sea of emotions from wonder and fascination to delight and fear. Phantom Power in contrast has many good moments, is performed with technical prowess and contains a number of interesting ideas, but it simply doesn’t evoke that level of feeling.

“I’ve been listening to [Wakeman album] Journey To The Centre Of The Earth as far back as I can remember listening to anything, and it’s still provokes a sea of emotions from wonder and fascination to delight and fear.”

But in purple, I'm stunning: the Ted Turner legacy.

It certainly makes for an unusual soundtrack and traveling back to that Universal soundstage of 1925 to the tune of half rock-opera, half rock album is indeed…schizophrenic. I’m definitely in two minds about how successful the project was, at the very least. The two eras don’t really mesh as they should, although there were times when I forgot about the music entirely and concentrated on the visuals. This is when you know a film score is doing its job. The rest of the time, I found myself carried away by the music. One could argue unfamiliarity to a certain extent: if all silent films were scored in this fashion, it wouldn’t seem so jarring. At the same time, however, I don’t the songs help and completely clash with what is being attempted on screen. While you may not hear any dialogue, the actors are still speaking and clearly progressing through a sequence of actions within the story. The sudden lapse into song literally feels as though you’re in the middle of a conversation while a third person is simultaneously trying to interrupt with their own perspective on the same topic. The lyrics are even more disruptive when the dialogue cards appear. Since there are other sequences where the music attempts to mirror the action, the overall effect is a little disjointed. Perhaps stronger overall direction would have reminded all concerned that they were meant to be producing a film score rather than a rock album would have prevented some of this audio-visual discord.

The lyrics at times are also a little annoying and repetitive. The words ‘phantom’, ‘phantom power’, and ‘the phantom of the opera’ are chanted unnecessarily across several songs – possibly an unconscious nod to the Ted Turner idiots who need their films colourised, although more likely an unsubtle attempt to build up the drama. Equally annoying are the words ‘the phantom is still alive’ repeated with great urgency by Ramedios as Lon Chaney flees through the fake streets of Paris at the film’s climax. We know he’s still alive. It’s a silent film, not a radio program. The fact that it’s Ramedios evokes that repetitive declaration one might find the norm in opera, however to support this view would be to let Wakeman off the hook.

“The two eras don’t really mesh as they should, although there were times when I forgot about the music entirely and concentrated on the visuals. This is when you know a film score is doing its job.”

Mob rule: the Phantom releases Christina as he is pursued through Paris.

Since Phantom Power the album is a polished song-driven concentration of the full score, it therefore has to be evaluated on those terms. ‘The Visit’ is probably my personal highlight (from which the above lyrics can be heard). The simple, yet effective and powerful bass-driven rock melody is memorable, and given extra menace by the vocals of Ashley Holt, though he’s also good on the softer, but moody ‘Evil Love’. The entirely instrumental ‘The Stiff’ gives the listener a good idea of the musical score one hears between songs across the full 90 minutes, although the equally instrumental ‘Sand Dance’ is the less nondescript of these unaccompanied offerings. Finally, despite the repetitive vocals, ‘Rock Chase’ is probably my favourite track to feature Ramon Ramedios (it features all three vocalists), perhaps because of the urgency of the piece, designed to accentuate that memorable climax.

'Phantom Power': the album.

Despite its many flaws, I find myself warming to Phantom Power with each successive listen, which in turn only supports my belief that much of the problem was jarring unfamiliarity. This does not excuse the many times Wakeman ignores the action on screen, the dated instruments, and the fact that he has definitely been more creative than this. It’s certainly too anachronistic to replace the traditional organic sound audiences are used to, but at the same time, it is, as I said at the very beginning, an interesting idea, an experiment that was worth attempting. Its creator can’t help the fact that it’s now about as contemporary as Milli Vanilli, especially since this ultimately is what he was asked to produce. On balance, the end result is as flawed as it is enjoyable. Since it felt so far removed from the original film, I don’t think it really changes my perspective on The Phantom Of The Opera. Perhaps the best tribute I can pay it is that I’d rather listen to Phantom Power any day than the overblown pretentiousness of the Lloyd-Webber musical. Now there’s someone who really did miss the point.

*****

Next Time


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2 responses

  1. Ha!

    That Disturbing Strokes clip was hilarious!

    Reminded me a bit of this kind of thing…

    December 12, 2010 at 4:43 pm

  2. By sheer coincidence, I just discovered the Literal Music Video phenomenon last night. While the Ghostbusters theme and Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ are both pretty funny, this video surely has the best vocalist.

    December 12, 2010 at 9:11 pm

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