There are some movies that seem tailor made for festival exhibition. Everyone who sees the film has a great time and just loves it, buzzing from the specific event as much as, if not more than, the film itself. Phantom of Winnipeg is one of these films. I saw it in a situation designed to heighten its excitement and emotional weight. Stripped of that context, however, I’m not sure how much is really here.
The documentary is a love letter to the strange city of Winnipeg and its unique and unyielding fandom for Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, a film that bombed at the box office everywhere yet was a huge hit in the Canadian city (and France, but the doc ignores that). We’re introduced to some specific core fans. We hear the story of how they discovered and fell in love with the film, as well as see the various forms their fandom has taken. A couple of them, for instance, are in a Phantom cover band called Swanage. With the creation of Al Gore’s internet, they are able to finally meet and join forces, which leads to two Winnipeg screening events they put together, reuniting the cast for nights that feel like true triumphs of fandom.
The Winnipeg of it all is a valid curiosity for sure, and the defining hook of the film doesn’t go much further than simply asking “Why Winnipeg? Why did this movie hit this city so particularly hard?” Of course, there is no real answer. The film posits that Winnipeg folks (“Peggers”) relate to outsiders and have a fondness for rock and roll and kind of leaves it at that. While we can’t know for sure why it happened, it’s undeniable that many Peggers who were eight to twelve years old in 1974 had their lives changed by the film.
But aside from hearing over and over (and over and over) about how much these individuals love Phantom of the Paradise, we don’t really get to know them as people. A couple of them in particular allude to severe darkness in their lives that never gets explored. Without this deeper examination, Phantom of Winnipeg can rarely get beyond the surface of its subject. As a whole, there is a love of fandom on display for sure, but the film’s biggest emotional moments come from Paul Williams’ sincere affection for the Peggers, not from the Pegges themselves, even though it’s plain to see such a connection is just sitting there, waiting for the filmmakers to bring it forward. Even Swanage, the Paradise cover band, is only seen not heard. Expensive song rights are obviously to blame, but it raises frustrating questions all the same. Are they any good? Why do we only meet two members? Are the others just musicians who want to play but could care less about Phantom?
The only real arc the Peggers get resolves in a way very few will experience: directly after the film ends at Fantasia Fest 2019 and the primary Peggers climb on stage for hugs and a Q&A with Paul Williams. I saw it. A theater full of others saw it as well. The film will play in Winnipeg soon and people will likely have a similar experience there. Everyone else, I’m afraid, will have to miss out. Without such a glorious conclusion, Phantom of Winnipeg is still a joyful celebration of fandom but ultimately not a fully satisfying one. If nothing else, it’ll definitely have you running to rewatch De Palma’s excellent film and hear all the songs once again.