Brian De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise” was not a hit when it came out in 1974, released to mild reviews and an even more unforgiving box office. At least, that was the case seemingly everywhere in the world except for the Canadian hub of Winnipeg, where “Phantom of the Paradise” became a fixation for seemingly any ‘Pegger (as they’re called) that had a feel for the crazy rock ’n roll in De Palma’s film. As other movies came through the city, “Phantom of the Paradise” would linger, and play shows week after week after week.
A whole batch of impressionable, outsider kids were never the same, and the movie inspired them to become musicians, or to see a part of themselves they hadn’t. Kevin Smith speaks in this movie about how these “phans” are such a select, intense bunch that they might as well have been part of an alien experiment. Watching these men and women talk with giddy smiles about “Phantom of the Paradise,” like cult members dedicated to a bonafide oddity, he’s onto something.
So goes the story of Malcolm Ingram and Sean Stanley’s documentary “Phantom of Winnipeg,” a consistently delightful collection of life stories where loving “Phantom of the Paradise” is at the center. We get to hear from many different individuals (not given title cards, making them memorable faces in a pool of a shared love), and they share not just stories of watching the film dozens of times, or of meeting their heroes. They also show off their signed vinyl records, merchandise, and even replicas of the Phantom's helmet, which had to be homemade when "Phantom" fever had first taken over Winnipeg.
Fear not if you haven’t seen “Phantom of the Paradise,” or if you do not share even a tenth of the admiration for it that these people do. The power in this documentary—right from the start—is that Ingram and Stanley celebrate the very specific chapters of their fandom, and immerse us in their geekiness while showing the sense of community. Like the most genuinely touching of films about anyone’s life, this focus then makes it universal. The passion that all of the subjects have for this movie becomes any viewer’s joy, especially as the directors seem to have an indispensable amount of stories about the power that “Phantom of the Paradise” has.
"Phantom of Winnipeg" isn’t so much about a fan community as the birth of a family, one that includes stars Paul Williams, Gerrit Graham, and Peter Elbling—they speak extensively in the film, about what this love for “Phantom” means to them, and how it lead to a gorgeous, symbiotic relationship. To see Elbling perform on stage alongside fans with the same zeal as anyone else in the room is a powerful sight, and one of many ways the documentary surpasses hagiography with its genuine touch.
Perhaps the biggest name involved with the original movie that does not speak in the film is Brian De Palma, but as crazy as this may sound, you won’t miss him—this is a story about the life “Phantom of the Paradise” had after, the meaning a text took on after its followers have passed it around; “Phantom of Winnipeg” is not so much about the ideas that birthed it, or the process of creating it, but the meaning it has to people for decades ongoing. This documentary's strong focus helps catapult the filmmaking through some shoddier-looking passages—even the collection of talking heads feel like a strong directorial choice, as you just want to listen to these people geek out. "Phantom of Winnipeg" is a universally appealing testament to how loving a piece of art—and in this case, both a soundtrack and a movie—is one of the most special connections any human being can have.
Attendees at Friday night’s world premiere of the documentary at Fantasia got to witness this love firsthand. Not only were the subjects in attendance, sitting in the front row, but Paul Williams was there as well, speaking about how the documentary came together, but more importantly about the legacy of the movie. He also stated that he hopes the story of "Phantom of the Paradise" lives on in new versions, and already had a director in mind: Edgar Wright.
Saturday night at Fantasia featured a special retrospective screening of "Phantom of the Paradise," with Williams, the 'Peggers, and producer Ed Pressman in attendance. Pair that with "Phantom of Winnipeg," and the legacy of "Paradise" comes full circle. As one of the highlighted “Phantom” fans stated regarding the decades they loved the movie: “We all saw Paul. Now he’s watching us.”