Legendary music producer (Lennon, Harrison, the Ramones etc), songwriter ('You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’), originator of the 'Wall of Sound’, and accused murderer, Phil Spector is interviewed at length in this mesmerising documentary. Archival footage of his greatest hits (The Righteous Brothers, Tina Turner, and more) is interspersed with scenes from his 2007 murder trial. Spector talks about his father’s suicide (when he was a toddler), his early singing career, and his spat with Scorsese over the illicit use of 'Be My Baby’ in Mean Streets. His bizarre hair backgrounded by the famous white piano from Imagine, he rants about everything and everyone (Tony Bennett is a frequent target), making Jayanti’s film, notwithstanding the violent crime of which Spector is accused (and since the film was completed, found guilty of), highly amusing, and his discriminating musicianship all the more startling.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: When Phil Spector agreed to extensive interviews with the BBC during his first trial on charges of murdering B-grade actress Lana Clarkson, he seized the opportunity to declare his innocence and to proclaim that he is a misunderstood and under-appreciated musical genius.
The result, The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector, is compelling and often hilarious viewing, but I doubt that it achieved his objectives. While that 2007 hearing was declared a mistrial after the jury couldn’t reach a verdict, we now know that he was found guilty of second degree murder at the second trial, and sentenced to at least 19 years in prison.
As for the court of public opinion, I suspect the man is destined to be remembered as a gifted composer/songwriter who had little or no regard for his victim and is haunted by his own demons. He exhibits paranoia (viewing the murder charges as some kind of weird conspiracy involving cops, the judicial system and powerful un-named figures in the music industry); disdain or jealousy for many of his contemporaries and collaborators; and a passing acquaintance with the truth. To cite but one example of his deceit, in a 1977 interview he claimed he was 5 or 6 when his father 'blew his head open"; in point of fact Ben Spector asphyxiated after running a tube from his car exhaust when his son was nine.
Director Vikram Jayanti artfully juxtaposes dozens of Spector’s songs with footage from the first trial, while a video of Clarkson’s painful impersonation of Little Richard is accompanied by John Lennon signing 'Woman Is The Nigger Of The World'.
Clearly delusional and possessed of a massive ego, he likens himself to Bach, Gershwin, Galileo and Michelangelo, and compares the making of the Righteous Brothers’ hit 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' ' to Da Vinci painting The Last Supper.
Interviewed in his 33-room Los Angeles mansion where Clarkson was found dead in February 2003, Spector comes across as a pathetic, solitary figure. His outlandish statements are frequently hilarious, as when he reveals his obsession with Tony Bennett; describes how hard it was to listen to Ravi Shankar play the sitar for three hours; gives an astonishingly clever impersonation of Lennon; and explains why he grew that afro. He vents his spleen against Paul McCartney for daring to suggest he didn’t like the way Spector produced the album 'Let It Be'.
Instead of expressing gratitude to the many artists who helped make him rich, he sees most of them as inter-changeable, with a few exceptions like Tina Turner. Curiously, we hear and see a lot about the laboured process of writing songs and creating the famed 'Wall of Sound,’ but are told very little about from where he drew his inspiration.
He barely mentions Clarkson, except to claim he was eight feet (2.4m) away from her when she died, and Jayanti doesn’t press him on his fondness for guns and placing them against the heads of previous girlfriends. Nor is he asked about his limo driver’s testimony of seeing Spector, smoking gun in hand, admit: 'I think I killed somebody."
Questioned at the end what he’d do if he were found guilty, he makes a flippant remark about sharing a cell with a 6 ft. 8 in. (2m) tall 'Bubba." Few may argue about that being a fitting punishment.