Composed yet confounding
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 17, 2010
What a strange thing is "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector." But then again, what a strange man is at the heart of this flawed but compelling documentary.
In 2007, on the eve of Spector's first of two trials for the murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson, the legendary music producer sat down with filmmaker Vikram Jayanti for what appears to be a lengthy, face-to-face interview in his Los Angeles mansion. Voluble and seemingly relaxed - at least if you ignore the 66-year-old's shaky hands and creepy, unblinking stare - Spector walks Jayanti through the highlights of his career as a composer and producer, including "To Know Him Is to Love Him," "Be My Baby," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," "River Deep, Mountain High," "My Sweet Lord" and "Imagine."
Professionally speaking, there's lots to talk about. And talk Spector does, peppering the conversation with both fond personal reminiscences and bitter recrimination about perceived slights, all the while largely avoiding the legal elephant in the room. At the start of the film, Spector does take note of the fact that, when prospective jurors in his upcoming court case were polled, 45 percent said they thought he was guilty, and 20 percent said they thought he was insane.
By the end of the movie, you may find yourself agreeing with both groups.
Like its subject, Jayanti's film is far from conventional. Half of it feels like a Barbara Walters "Most Fascinating People" special, except that the one topic that everyone wants the interviewer to ask about is off limits. Still, it's a rare opportunity to hear the notoriously aloof Spector talk about his work as a writer, performer and producer of some of the undeniably greatest tunes of the past 50 years. That remains true, even if his frequent comparisons of his talent to that of Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein and others grow tiresome - not to mention delusional - after a while.
Interspersed with this footage, however, are clips from court testimony on the charge that Spector, in 2003, placed a gun in Clarkson's mouth and shot her as she tried to leave his home. We hear conflicting evidence. One expert says the bullet wound had to be self-inflicted, buttressed by a friend of Clarkson's who testifies that she was depressive. On the other side, a parade of ex-girlfriends of Spector's takes the stand to tell of times the producer threatened them with guns.
Every now and then Jayanti simply shows the actors in the courtroom drama in wordless slo-mo, accompanied by the ominous and bizarre telling of a bell. At one point, he zooms in on Spector's face, as the man sits on the interview couch in his pin-striped suit and red silk shirt, slowing the film down until Spector looks like a fish gasping for air. At those moments, Jayanti's subject comes across as even more of a freak than he already does, with his now infamous assortment of obvious wigs, and facial expressions that swing back and forth between affectless inscrutability and inappropriate laughter.
Is all that really necessary?
There's plenty of agony to go around, even if Spector didn't kill Clarkson. (After the first trial ended in a hung jury, a 2009 jury found him guilty, sentencing him to 19 years to life). Spector is, by his own admission, motivated chiefly by anger at the world's failure to give him his due.
But when has the world ever shortchanged Phil Spector? Murderer or not, the man is a musical genius, and Jayanti's film makes that abundantly, even tragically clear, through copious and lovingly lingering clips of his best songs, which take on unexpected new meaning and poignancy.
That's the ecstasy part.
Contains obscenity, crime scene photos and discussion of violent death. Director Vikram Jayanti will appear at the theater on 12/17 at the 5 and 7 p.m. shows for post-screening Q&As.