Behind Phil Spector’s lush, multi-layered acoustic “Wall of Sound” – the richly engrossing recording style that defined an entire epoch of pop music – the visionary record producer was busily evolving into a world-class eccentric, a resentful egotist, a self-styled unappreciated genius and a convicted murderer.
Recent bizarre news images of Spector, with his fright-wig hairstyle and sallow eyes, belie the smart, whippet thin, mod hipster who scored his first pop hit (“To Know Him Is to Love Him”) at age 17 and went on to produce in his painstaking, inimitable style countless generation-defining recordings of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, ranging through “Be My Baby,” “He’s a Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Let It Be” and “Imagine.”
“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector” offers up a fascinating if erratic documentary portrait of this tortured genius at the nadir of his career and life, while he was first being tried for the shooting death of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson one hazy-boozy night at his Alhambra, Calif., mansion.
British director Vikram Jayanti constructs his film around a series of BBC interviews he conducted with the notoriously reclusive Spector in the midst of his first murder trial in 2007.
While Jayanti supports the interviews with rich archival footage of musicians reminiscing and performing Spector’s signature songs, with printed critical analyses from rock journalist Mick Brown and with spotty peeks at Spector’s murder trials (after an initial mistrial, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19 years to life), it’s the interview revelations from the eminently quotable Spector that provide the film’s most juicy bits of celebrity psychopathology and music history.
Despite his wealth and myriad successes, Spector still deeply resents those who ostracized him as an oddball in high school. He also resents rock great Buddy Holly (“He got a postage stamp even though he was only in rock ’n’ roll for three years,” Spector sniffs.)
Spector views his own accomplishments, his “little symphonies for the kids,” as being on par with the works of Bach, Michelangelo, Leonard da Vinci and Galileo.
Spector claims credit for salvaging the careers of filmmaker Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro by not shutting down the release of “Mean Streets” for the unauthorized use of “Be My Baby,” and for massaging the Beatles’ chaotic studio tapes into the classic “Let It Be” album.
Spector views editing as a cheat, a lazy shortcut to great music. He scoffs at Brian Wilson’s celebrated “Good Vibrations” as a mere “edit record.”
Despite his obvious megalomania and paranoia, Spector proves to be hugely entertaining in conversation – although he clearly emerges here as a deeply troubled, profoundly delusional and creepily dangerous man.
Jayanti’s film works best when it’s letting Spector speak. It falls far short of providing any real insight into his guilt or innocence in Clarkson’s death. And its sketchy depictions of the murder trial are more maddening than enlightening.
Still, as a sort of rock-Shakespearean tragedy of hubris and human frailty, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector” is essential viewing for any baby boomer who ever rhapsodized over the radio romanticism of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” or puzzled over the queasy, misogynistic mysteries of “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).”
- Dennis King
“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector”