This documentary is an almost too-perfect example of a discomfiting trend, one in which the privilege of access determines the ability to get an entire film made. Which is to say that about the only thing director Vikram Jayanti did right with his film was in scoring a lengthy interview with this film's subject, legendary rock producer Phil Spector. He obtained this interview as Spector was in the middle of his first trial for the killing of actress Lana Clarkson, whose career had foundered to the point that in 2003 she was hostessing at a Hollywood House of Blues. It was there that she was alleged to have met Spector, and sojourned with him to the legendary castle where he once, for all intents and purposes, held his one-time wife Ronnie Spector hostage for many years. Clarkson did not leave the place alive. The one other indisputable fact we can take from that encounter is that she died of a gunshot wound from a bullet that came out of one of Spector's many, many firearms.
Rock and roll enthusiasts know Spector as both a record man of a certain genius and a troubled, and troubling figure. In the years prior to Clarkson's death, his jocular, sometimes avuncular, and undeniably eccentric appearances at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame functions could make one think of him as being somewhat slightly less dangerous to know than he had been in his heyday. The Clarkson death changed all that. His eccentricities came off a lot less endearing in the courtroom where he glared at the judge, fidgeted, became known for his intermittently outright bizarre hairstylings. Spector's lengthy justification in this film for that overly-puffed out quasi-afro, the one that caused Jay Leno to "quip" that it looked like the state of California had already electrocuted, glosses over the fact that this coif had to be at least partially a wig (see above, the mug shot that, strangely enough, does not make it into the film), which deflates his whole "I didn't know it looked so big" argument.
Jayanti's interview with Spector is the film's fulcrum. Conducted in Spector's castle, with the man sitting in front of the white piano he claims is the "Imagine" piano of John Lennon fame (although I myself saw a white piano that I presumed to be same in Yoko Ono's Dakota apartment when I interviewed her in 1993; rock scholar and critic Kurt Loder drolly speculated, after the screening we attended, that like the many Goldfinger Aston Martins, there were a large number of "Imagine" pianos out there), it certainly is, what do you call it, fascinating. Spector seems to have traded in his actual soul for a welter of resentments a long, long time ago. Of the various tall tales he tells and the people he rags on, the most creepily amusing object of his irritation is the singer Tony Bennett, to whom he returns several times. Nobody ever talks about how Tony Bennett did this and that all through the '70s. Everybody likes Tony Bennett even though he did all these drugs. How come Tony Bennett gets to do duets with Bono? And so on. At a certain point you wanna slap the guy and say, "Hey Phil! Guess what? Tony Bennett didn't ever bring a girl to his house to have her end up with her brains blown out with one of his guns! Maybe that's why people like Tony Bennett better than you! Oh, and also that you have an over thirty-year history of being a lunatic asshole!" Who else doesn't he like? Well, Buddy Holly got a stamp in his honor, and he was only "in rock and roll for three years." Somebody else got an honorary doctorate. Like anybody gives a damn about an honorary doctorate. All the while ignoring the elephant in the room, Spector sits comfortably in luxury's lap, at liberty on bail, and wonders what the world has done for him lately. It's a staggering portrait of blind egotism run rampant.
Which isn't to say that he's not engaging, not supremely intelligent, not sometimes even charming, in spite of the fact that he seems on the verge of slobbering whenever he gets excited and starts talking fast. Explaining his painstaking "wall of sound" production methods, he semi-dismisses Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" as "an edit record," which, value judgments aside, is interesting and not inapt. But everything, literally everything, he has to say always comes back to how he's getting a raw deal. Not an oodle of sympathy for the person who died in his house.
Well, at least he's honest, right?
"I'm in the hands of twelve people who voted for George Bush," he notes, dismissing the jury of his first trial. The courtroom footage Jayanti includes is an unrelenting chronicle of Spector doing himself zero favors. At one point, the famed mob lawyer Bruce Cutler is seen as part of Spector's defense team. One might think that the guy who got off Dapper Don John Gotti so many times might have counseled his client on courtroom deportment. Maybe he did, and Spector ignored it. Maybe that's why we stop seeing him at a certain point. This, by the way, is more information than the documentary gives you. In a rather pointless touch, the film only refers to Spector and Clarkson by name. The trial judge is called "The Judge," the prosecuting attorney "The D.A." or some such. It seems that Jayanti wants to deny the viewer context. Then again, maybe he was doing us a favor in this respect, because when he does try to provide context, he makes some rather dreadful choices. Possibly the most egregious is when Jayanti displays a provocative discovery: an original comedy audition reel by Clarkson in which the one time scream queen does a very broad impersonation of Little Richard in elaborate blackface makeup, which he scores to John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Woman Is The Nigger of the World" (from the Plastic Ono Band's Spector-produced, and rather dreadful, Some Time In New York City). In some interviews, Jayanti has made a big deal out of the fact that all the Spector music included in the film is heard in its entirety, speaking of context. That's kind of true; only a lot of the time there's talking over it, and some of the live versions of the songs in question—Ike and Tina Turner's concert rendition of "River Deep, Mountain High" in particular—don't quite represent Spector's vision. The film does not seem particularly interested in even beginning to try to figure out how the shy, talented kid who wrote "To Know Him Is To Love Him" based on the inscription on his suicide father's headstone became first the titan of teen and then a ghastly perhaps-murderer; just the fact of it happening seems enough.
"I think rage comes out when you're treated with disrespect." And so Spector counts himself with the great African-American musicians of the 20th century, citing Miles Davis and stating that Edward Kennedy Ellington dubbed himself "Duke" out of rage, out of demanding respect from the white man. Ah, yes, the rage of Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington, the man who wrote of "the most important and moral of freedoms: freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity[...]; freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it might help himself; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel better than his brother or his neighbor." Yes, that Duke Ellington. Spector's identification with Ellington is irksome; this nerve-racked boil of pettiness and paranoia and bad will could produce one hundred more records as great as "River Deep, Mountain High," and he still wouldn't be fit to altar the hem of any given Ellington garment, as far as I'm concerned. That said, his tortured story deserves better than this film.
The Agony And The Ecstasy of Phil Spector opens today at New York's Film Forum.