Finding paradise with the phantom City's love of cult rock opera explored in new documentary

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/07/2019 (1131 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-g4Ylv9UP1U

Doug Carlson’s love for Phantom of the Paradise can be kind of over the top sometimes, according to his 18-year-old daughter.

“But I think it’s awesome that he has something that he’s so passionate about, and that other people are too,” Amelia Carlson says.

Amelia and her older sister Madeleine grew up watching clips of Brian De Palma’s hard-to-classify 1974 film — particularly those featuring Beef, the glam-rock diva played by Gerrit Graham. She watched the movie in its entirety for the first time when she was about 11.

“I thought it was really, really great. I really love costume design and set design and I thought it was visually incredible,” Amelia says.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Doug Carlson introduced his daughters Amelia (standing) and Madeleine to Phantom of the Paradise.

That reaction was not unlike her dad’s when he saw Phantom of the Paradise for the first time at the Garrick Theatre in 1975, right at the beginning of Winnipeg’s unusual love affair with the film that was a box-office disaster nearly everywhere else it screened.

“I vividly remember that day,” says Carlson, who struggled to get permission from his parents and owned the soundtrack well before he was allowed to see the film.

Carlson recalls a theatre filled with people his own age and an audience that hung on every line of dialogue and laughed at every joke. For many in the crowd, it was the closest thing to a rock concert they had ever attended.

“I just remember that sense of affinity that I had with the crowd and I didn’t necessarily want to see the movie again, as much as I wanted to see the movie with that audience again,” he says.

SUPPLIED SCREENSHOT
Craig Wallace is a member of the local Phantom of the Paradise tribute band Swanage and is featured in the new documentary.

Chasing that sense of community is something that has driven Carlson’s involvement in the local Phantom scene. His claim to fame has become an oft-referenced essay he penned that attempts to answer the elusive question: why Winnipeg?

That essay and that question caught the attention of Toronto-based filmmaker Malcolm Ingram, whose childhood memories of watching Phantom of the Paradise are a bit different than Carlson’s.

“I think I was always more in terror of it than I was a fan of it,” he says. “I appreciate it more now that I’m more grown up.”

The 91-minute rock opera is about a songwriter whose music is stolen by a record producer to help open a new concert hall, The Paradise.

A scene that left a lasting impression on Ingram is an accident in a record-pressing plant that disfigures the composer and finalizes his transformation into the Phantom, who terrorizes the new venue before signing a Faustian deal with the evil producer Swan, played by Paul Williams.

The movie had an 18-week run at the Garrick, the longest of anywhere else it was released in North America. While the movie’s popularity has grown in recent years, Winnipeg’s “phandom” is something of a worldwide anomaly; and Ingram knew it would be perfect fodder for a documentary.

RITH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Mega-Phantom fan Gloria Dignazio was one of the organizers of the local Phantompalooza fan events celebrating the cult movie.

After four years of crowdfunding and production, Ingram and co-director Sean Stanley are set to release Phantom of Winnipeg this month, which casts a loving lens on this city and the generation that grew up watching Phantom of the Paradise.

“This community embraced this film, and in the documentary they say it’s because nobody told them that nobody else loved it, so it didn’t matter,” Ingram says.

“It couldn’t happen today, it’s a pre-internet culture story and that, to me, that was the most wonderful essence of it.”

The documentary makes its world première at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal on July 12.

Carlson and his daughters make an appearance in the film and he took on the role of production consultant, helping the filmmakers connect with local interview subjects.

MIKE APORIUS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES
The Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack can be found in the collections of plenty of Winnipeggers.

“Of any documentary I had done, it was certainly the easiest because the fans had all kind of connected with each other by the time I got there,” says Ingram, who is primarily a queer-issues documentarian.

“To venture off and tell this story was amazing, it was a real privilege… It’s a movie that I’m tickled pink to be associated with.”

Carlson has seen the rough cut of Phantom of Winnipeg and has high praise for the documentary.

“It’s probably the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says, adding the film brought him right back to the Garrick Theatre in 1975.

“The film is extremely satisfying emotionally, it’s very heartfelt it’s very sympathetic and it certainly captures the essence of Winnipeg properly in my opinion.”

The bulk of the documentary was filmed over three weeks in the middle of a Winnipeg winter and features a Manitoba social and references to Winnipeg as the Slurpee capital of the world. Interviews with local fans and original cast members are cut alongside scenes from the movie and footage from the first Phantompalooza fan events in 2005 and 2006.

SUPPLIED SCREENSHOT
Phantom of the Paradise fan Rick Carvahlo shows off his Phantom tattoo.

Interviewing Williams, who composed the film’s soundtrack, provided the Phantom’s singing voice and portrayed Swan, was a career highlight for Ingram.

“I’ve interviewed a lot of people on camera, from Fred Phelps to Ben Affleck, and the most impressive person I’ve ever talked to was Paul Williams. He might as well have a head on Mount Rushmore,” he says.

In the documentary, Williams credits “Peggers” with giving life to Phantom of the Paradise.

SUPPLIED SCREENSHOT
Actor Paul Williams composed the soundtrack for Phantom of the Paradise and played the role of Swan, an evil record producer.

For Gloria Dignazio, that kind of reverence coming from a celebrity she has looked up to since she was 11 years old is hard to fathom.

“The cast members are fans of us in Winnipeg now, it’s unbelievable what’s happened, it’s just crazy,” says Dignazio, who has seen the movie more times than she can count and has been the driving force behind the Phantompalooza events and local screenings.

The rock ‘n’ roll spectacle is what drew her in, and the storyline is what causes her to keep hitting play 44 years later.

“I still have the same feelings as that little girl in Grade 6 sitting there with butterflies during my favourite parts of the movie,” Dignazio says.

She has met most of the original cast members and has even forged a long-distance friendship with Williams. For Dignazio, Phantom of the Paradise has become much more than her favourite movie.

“It has brought so much joy into my life, not only the actual movie and the music, but now everything that goes with it and all the people that I’ve met,” she says.

“In my Phantom world, anything is possible.”

Dignazio is also featured in Ingram’s documentary and is one of dozens of local fans — Carlson included — who are making the pilgrimage out east for the première. If you’re travelling to Montreal by plane next week, don’t be alarmed by the number of passengers sporting Phantom of Paradise or Death Records T-shirts.

“We’re going to take up half the plane,” Dignazio says, laughing. “It’s going to be a big party.”

Although details haven’t officially been announced, there are plans for a local screening of Phantom of Winnipeg later this summer, according to Dignazio.

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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