By David Daley
CALGARY – A rock opera puts the famed synthesizer TONTO (aka The Original New Timbral Orchestra) on centre stage at Studio Bell.
The Phantom of the Paradise is a cherished cult film of mammoth proportions. A big star of the film is the unique modular synthesizer TONTO,an invention by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, which joined different types of synth technology into one machine to allow musical experimentation unlike ever before. In 2013, the National Music Centre (NMC) acquired TONTO for their working musical instrument collection and the famous synthesizer was moved to Calgary to be restored for use.
In conjunction with the Alberta Electronic Music Festival, NMC is celebrating the completion of TONTO’s restoration with TONTO week, a series of events running November 14-18 that includes which include a rare screening of the cult film that helped make TONTO famous.
The Phantom of the Paradise is many things at once: a mind-bending horror film, rock opera, tragedy, love story, comedy and a cautionary tale for us mere mortals. There’s a reason why the movie ran almost constantly for a year in Winnipeg after it first opened and has earned permanent die-hard cult status around the world: it’s a damn good film.
Legendary director Brian DePalma both wrote and directed the story, drawing from the classic tales of Faust, The Phantom of the Opera and The Picture of Dorian Grey. Rod Serling of the surreal TV show The Twilight Zone narrates an eerie introduction explaining how the music mogul Swan seeks the music to open his new rock palace “the Paradise” with: “..this film is the story of that search, of that sound, of the man who made it, the girl who sang it and the monster who stole it.”
Winslow Leach is a brilliant composer. Swan steals his masterpiece cantata and sends him to jail on false charges. Leach escapes from prison and is horribly injured and believed dead after he tries to destroy the pop-music pressings of the music swan stole from him. Things heat up when a lurking phantom kills the Paradise’s opening act “Beef” in a horrible onstage spectacle. The story get even stranger after that.
The diminutive Paul Williams (who also plays Swan in the film) wrote the music and lyrics for the soundtrack at the height of his song-writing career and each tune is quite successful on its own. Blistering rock performances by Swan’s musical incantation “The Undead” leave more than a few people chopped up afterwards. The chanteuse Phoenix sings a hauntingly beautiful love ballad after Beef is cooked alive onstage. Immediately an instant star, Phoenix is seduced by Swan which creates a love-triangle that doesn’t end well at all.
Don’t be thrown off by the movie’s campy 1970s aesthetic or apparent simplicity, this is a film lover’s film of the highest order with strong visual symbolism and a rich sub-text. It’s a dark parody and venomous critique of the star-making schemes of greedy producers and well worth seeing on the big screen. Love and death, hope and despair, doom and redemption all await the viewer in this unique rock and roll horror phantasy.
And if that wasn’t enough, TONTO week, in addition to a number of events celebrating all things synth, is rounded off with a matinee screening on Nov. 18 of I Dream of Wires, an acclaimed feature length documentary that explores the resurgence of the modular synthesizer. Trent Reznor is among the featured musicians who explain their passion for the Moog synthesizer and why its unique sound is a permanent ingredient in music today and always will be.
The Phantom of the Paradise screens at 7:00 pm on Nov. 17 at Studio Bell, and I Dream of Wires screens at 11:00 am on Nov. 18 at the King Eddy. TONTO Week runs from Nov. 14 to 18. All other TONTO Week events can be found at: www.studiobell.ca/whats-on