How do you solve a problem like Phil Spector? In The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (opening today at the Roxie Theater), filmmaker Vikram Jayanti — who co-produced the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings — creates a compelling but fundamentally flawed portrait of this culture-shaking musical genius and convicted murderer.
The film’s structure is interesting and somewhat stylized: extensive televised footage from Spector’s first murder trial, for the death of struggling B-movie actress Lana Clarkson, is woven into a landmark interview granted by Spector to Jayanti, filmed in the same Alhambra mansion where Clarkson’s life ended. Spector is the film’s only interview subject, and he grants a vast, good-natured, and amusingly eccentric Q&A about his life, career, and reputation.
Most entertainingly, Jayanti has also included a wealth of archival musical performances of Spector’s many, many, many astonishing productions, a good number of which are shown in their entirety. They range from his very first hit single in 1958, “To Know Him Is To Love Him” by The Teddy Bears (a charmingly young and straight-laced Spector can be seen playing guitar and singing harmony in the clip), on through his collaborations with The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner, The Beatles, George Harrison, and John Lennon.
I mean, seriously. It must be said that this man produced an absurdly high percentage of the twentieth century’s most iconic songs. “Be My Baby.” “Chapel of Love.” “Then He Kissed Me.” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” “River Deep Mountain High.” “Let It Be.” “My Sweet Lord.” “Imagine.” The list goes on and on and on. It is genuinely awe-inspiring to revisit them sequentially in this film and imagine them all springing from the creative mind of this one troubled little man.
And in case you don’t know what to think about them, Jayanti has made the unique/unfortunate choice to display critical (and frequently overwrought) texts by Spector scholar Mick Brown during the songs, many of which play over disturbing trial footage. The effect can be a bit obvious at times — there’s really no way to incorporate “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” and its accompanying critical analysis into footage of Spector’s murder trial without seeming a bit too heavy-handed — and is ultimately an experiment gone awry.
Inevitably when discussing a documentary, the issue of objectivity is broached. In my opinion, Jayanti’s film is unquestionably pro-Spector apologetics. At the very least, this is how it functions for the viewer. For instance, Jayanti focuses entirely on Spector’s first trial, which resulted in a hung jury. The second trial, at which Spector was found guilty and sentenced to 19 years to life, is mentioned in a maddeningly brief context-free postscript.
The evidence (and lack of evidence) presented onscreen is certainly enough to convince the viewer that Spector’s guilt does not exist beyond the shadow of a doubt. For instance, the prosecution is depicted as utterly lacking forensic evidence. Grisly computer animation illustrates the effect that shooting a woman directly in the mouth with a small handgun would have had on Spector’s hand and clothing. It gets to be a bit morbid, this business of proving or disproving someone’s guilt based on things like “spray,” but it adds a necessary amount of gravity to the proceedings.
If the film had a thesis, it would be that public figures who’ve become notorious, whether fairly or unfairly, are incapable of getting a fair trial; and, once accused, their career accomplishments are forever woven into the narrative of their infamy. Jayanti attempts to convey this by literally weaving these disparate elements together into one exhilarating, sad, provocative stream of consciousness. And while there is certainly validity to this argument — Roman Polanski would have been a logical analogy to make — Jayanti ultimately undermines his film by what is unsaid rather than what is said.
His interview with Spector never touches on the more difficult subjects, such as the decades of domestic abuse allegations that have been made against him, from Ronnie Spector onward. In general, it comes across as a fairly innocuous conversation between a cultural icon and a reverent fan that could have happened on the couches of The View. As for Spector, he paints a heroic and faultless picture of his life with equal parts self-aggrandizement, resentment, and paranoia. You get the sense that he knows he’s the lone keeper of his own legacy. If he doesn’t refine and perpetuate this myth, then who will?
The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector will play at the Roxie Theater from September 10-16.