This made-for-BBC doc is a strange beast indeed, as compelling for what it doesn’t show as for what it does. It is basically several films in one, the first a protracted and rather revealing interview with the man that more than almost anyone shaped popular music production at the heyday of Rock and Roll (Spector quotes John Lennon who said that Phil was responsible for keeping the genre from dying while Elvis was in the army). The other key element of the film traces Spector’s trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson, a Z-list actor and a paid pretty face at the House of Blues.
The director seems to deliberately obfuscate elements of the trial, showing silent imagery from the testimony (a glance here, some gesticulations there) while the central interview plays on voiceover. Adding to this schizophrenic nature, many of Spector’s celebrated creations play in their entirety, with informative if a bit pretentious notes about the songs.
Somehow, in the collision of these various facets makes for something that’s both engaging and frustrating. Certainly, behind the hyperbole and self-aggrandizement, we get one of the more thorough discussions by Spector on his art that’s ever been recorded. Clips from other sources (including scenes from the Tony Palmer film ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE) show the usual Spector interview – crazed, wild hair, generally incoherent. In this film he’s both lucid and often quite charming, even at his most outrageous. When he points out what he thinks to be the hypocrisy of the industry, forgiving the “biggest coke head in town” Tony Bennett while he’s left to be “the bad guy”, it all almost makes sense. His dismissal of Brian Wilson’s work on GOOD VIBRATIONS as being nothing but a “edit record” is tied aesthetically to Hitchcock’s films – PSYCHO, for Spector, is similarly an “edit movie”, one with (in his words) a weak story but well executed in its construction (he provides REBECCA as his counter-example). While his analysis is certainly debatable, it’s obviously enjoyable for any student of popular music to hear the man’s views on one of his more celebrated disciples.
When Spector gets weird, he gets weird. When talking about his obviously wigged form, he goes off on a diversion about Dylan’s curly locks. When asked about the white Steinway in the background, he admits it’s the one bought by him and Lennon for the IMAGINE project, and then the camera is asked to be turned off (which, frustratingly, it is). This is par for the course, yet underneath these eccentricities there are more than enough nuggets of what seem to be truths, and fun annecdotes from a guy that really was at least part of the centre of the musical universe for decades.
Concurrently, the elements of the trial that we are offered, like much of the film, are almost certainly to be interpreted under whatever preconception one brings to the film. On its face, it’s hard not to see the evidence be weak, the grandstanding of the district attorney to be a dinner-theater level of overacting and overemoting, and physical evidence (with a unstained white jacket supposedly within inches of a headshot) almost certainly exculpatory. Still, given that the jury spent weeks before a mistrial was declared, and that a second trial did find him guilty, it’s hard without having followed the events clearly to see whether Spector was a victim of a justice system out to convict an arrogant, outsider celebrity or whether in fact he was guilty of the charges for which he was convicted.
These questions, and many, many others, are almost obstinately avoided by the documentary. Sure, Spector’s storied relationship with his ex-spouses is ignored, as that would have made for a very different film, but the doc seems to almost ignore the very counterpoint that the editing structure helps illuminate. I’ll assume that Spector was unwilling to discuss any matters about the trial during the interview, but by being so selective about what audio from the trail we do get to hear, it’s impossible to come to any kind of informed consensus. Of what we do see, it’s the victim that comes off the worst, with a sickly blackface performance in her demo reel shown to the jury, or her best friend testifying of her depression, and the only real person speaking of her grand future in acting (that hadn’t hit by her 40s) her slick, clearly low-ball agent.
We’re left in the end with a strange, murky film that’s certainly enjoyable, but also frustratingly oblique. While this kind of fractured structure can be helpful in driving the complexity of the events, this film seems to do the opposite, making the more complex seem all the more trite and simplistic.
As a document of an interview about Spector’s life and work, it’s an important and valuable thing. As a documentation of the (first) murder trial, it’s more scattershot than the usual Spector discussion. As a critical analysis of a number of songs he wrote and/or produced, it’s no better than any number of films that do the same, with many far superior. It’s this in-between nature of the fragmented style that makes for a frustrating, yet at the same time engaging presentation. The film’s saving grace is the same thing that defies any salacious activity by the subject, the glorious soundtrack that was produced. While the film deliberately smashes together the art with the travails and foibles of the man who created it, the strains of YOU’VE LOST THAT LOVING FEELING or RIVER DEEP, MOUNTAIN HIGH drown out any of the horrifying behaviour on display by both the subject and participants in this sordid trial.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is playing at TIFF Lightbox from January 27-February 2nd, 2011