The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector

For some reason I was expecting a dark, sullen psycho prone to fits of anger. Instead the Phil Spector featured in this documentary is a voluble nebbish, with a real sense of nerdy charisma and enthusiasm. The film rather awkwardly brings together three main threads here: a lengthy interview with Spector, clips from the first murder trial which ended in a hung jury and a chronological/musicological history of Spector’s life as a producer, from the Teddy Bears through to John Lennon and Tina Turner. Though the documentary has been highly acclaimed, I didn’t find it to be particularly well-made. The interview is far from incisive—it’s mostly prompts to allow Spector to make speeches and go on whatever tangent he likes. The courtroom segments are fragmentary and not particularly clear. The analysis of the various songs—with clips of full performances by the likes of The Ronettes, Righteous Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, etc.—are probably the strongest part of the film, though their interest is self-generated rather than a feature of any element of the documentary. Mick Brown contributes some effusive capsule analyses of various noteworthy songs which emphasize the auteurist interpretation of Spector as a genius whose production work is more significant and consistent than the contributions of any individual performer.

Spector’s character is paradoxical; he’s very engaging and compelling, even when he’s weirdly mean-spirited and egomaniacal. He keeps comparing himself to Renaissance artists like DaVinci, Raphael, etc. —perhaps because their names signify “genius” in popular culture shorthand. He has a compulsive need to put himself above everyone else. He downgrades “Good Vibrations” as a “cut song” (one that is edited from various parts, I assume) and dismisses Buddy Holly because he was only in rock and roll for three years (Spector is annoyed that Holly received a postage stamp while he has received no such national acknowledgement). Spector has some kind of weird hang-up over Tony Bennett, whom he keeps using as an all-purpose example of someone who unfairly benefitted from Spector’s pioneering work while not recognizing it. Part of his problem seems to come from Bennett’s wholesome image that persists despite Bennett being, in Spector’s claim, a major cokehead of the 1960s and 70s. Bennett is a sell-out to the MTV generation who denies his past and doesn’t have to suffer for his misdeeds, as Spector imagines himself doing. Despite all this odd sniping and self-aggrandizement, Spector is very pleasant and most of these remarks don’t really have a vicious edge. Far from being the hollow-eyed recluse I imagined, he’s lively and interesting.

Of course, one could argue that he possesses the edgy charm of the narcissist psychopath, the kind of person who is known for pulling guns on women (and some of the performers he worked with, including Lennon and the Ramones) and who may have actually shot Lana Clarkson in the mouth after bringing her home from the House of Blues where she worked as a hostess (would we have seen her during the past days in LA?). Unfortunately the documentary doesn’t shed much light on the shooting. Its point of view isn’t very coherent though it seems to lean toward Spector’s lawyer’s claim that the gunshot wound was self-inflicted, Clarkson killing herself in a sudden outpouring of despair. Unfortunately, the interviewer is so deferential and star-struck that the question “Did you kill her” is never even posed in the interview. Perhaps that omission was a requirement for the interview? We do get quite a few shots of Spector looking like a zombie during the trail—I don’t know if these shots are meant to reinforce the mythology surrounding him or to provide sympathy for someone so obviously frail and scared. A shattered, obviously over-medicated Spector being hustled by massive bodyguards into a dark sedan with the vanity plate “I Luv Phil” (or something like it, I forget) is vivid Day of the Locust stuff though it doesn’t much advance our knowledge of the trial and its substance.

The film is a fascinating character analysis, despite its weaknesses. I am inclined toward admiration, or at least respect, for Spector which is perhaps why I found his voluble narcissism more engaging than off-putting. One remarkable lesson from the documentary is how much a little knowledge can undermine the popular mythologies of tabloid news.

4 thoughts on “The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector”

  1. Thanks for the review, Michael. Where did you see this? I see it’s not on DVD yet.

    When I first of heard of this documentary, I was surprised to learn that Spector participated. He’s notorious for making himself inaccessible to biographers.

    I’ve always known that he’s been charismatic–and smart. Tom Wolfe did a piece on him years ago–“The Tycoon of Teen” or something–and he describes an appearance Spector made on a David Susskind show where Susskind and William B. Williams start taking the piss out Phil and his dopey records. And Spector is brilliant with his comebacks, which are neither vicious nor snide.

    Speaking of William B. Williams. And pop music.

  2. John–I saw it in New York where it is still in release. I also saw Chaplin’s The Circus there which was terrific. I imagine Phil put strict limits on the interview which is why it’s so soft and so geared toward his own mythmaking. I’ll check out the Wolfe piece though the thought of reading Tom Wolfe gives me a certain sense of dread.

    David Fuckin’ Susskind! That’s when every NY talk show host thought he was a damn intellectual. jesus, in my day, we had real singers like Rosemary Clooney and Dennis Day….not your “baby this” and “baby that.” jungle mumbo jumbo….

    on a sad/bizarre side note, apparently Phil got married and his wife just released a CD that he claims to have produced in the time before he went to jail. I don’t know what twisted path brought these two together, but the CD art and title do not inspire confidence. Her name is Rachelle and the CD is called “Out of My Chelle.” And she’s busting out of some pink spider web or bubble gum thing….I just don’t know…I will work up the courage to listen to the samples on Phil’s website.

  3. Thanks, Gio. I think they probably could have made a complementary film which focused on the not so endearing side. I wonder if Phil is accepting letters in jail…..

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