13 December 2010

Movie review: The Agony and the Ecstacy of Phil Spector

Phil Spector is the most important record producer in the history of Western popular music. And he would be more than happy to elaborate on that importance for you. Spector agreed to be interviewed extensively for this documentary during his first trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson (the trial ended in a mistrial; Spector was tried two years later and convicted). During this time, he explains why Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson are overrated, why Martin Scorsece and Robert DeNiro owe him their careers, and compares himself to Miles Davis, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Johann Sebastian Bach. All while protesting the various injustices of his concurrent trial.

Director Vikram Jayanti has stitched together these and some archival interviews, footage from the trial and vintage perormances of Spector's best-known hits into an oddly directionless film that seems to be trying to be several different movies at once, but never tries very hard. He presents some of the details of the murder case and sort of explains most of them. He plays a bunch of Spector's songs while running quotes of critical praise on the screen.

So what is this movie? Is it the story of the trial? Yes and no. Jayanti shows lawyers and witnesses testifying about just enough contradictory evidence to sow doubt in the viewer's mind as to Spector's guilt or innocence, but never makes any attempt to build a story out of the footage. So, OK, no. There's an occasional subtle parallel between the trial footage and the song being discussed, like when John Lennon's "Woman Is the N----r Of the World" plays under testimony about Clarkson's flagging career and struggles with depression and substance abuse, but it hardly qualifies as a running theme. Likewise, the critical appraisal of Spector's music feels underdeveloped. The quotes shown on screen are all from the same critic, and no one other than Spector is interviewed.

Still, the film remains compelling and often riveting due to the presence of Spector himself, surely one of the 20th century's great weirdos. At one point the interviewer(s? I can't tell if there are one or two voices from offscreen) takes what seems like a pretty big risk by asking Spector if his notorious afro hairdo was intentionally funny. Spector, surprisingly, concurs, and explains that the coiffure was intended as a tribute to Ludwig van Beethover, Albert Einstein and Detroit Pistons power forward Ben Wallace. And that hardly stands out as the most ridiculous statement to leave his mouth.

Spector is currently in jail, serving a 19 year sentence for the murder of Lana Clarkson. We can't mourn the loss of his continued musical output, as the last album he produced was released in 1980; he has been little more than an eccentric recluse ever since. But as Hunter Thompson once defiantly assured himself before an impending arrest, "Many great books have been written in prison." Please, Phil, if you're reading this (and I know you're not), use this time to crank out your memoirs. I'd read 'em.

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