The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector
(BBC/Arena/ VIXPIX Films)
US theatrical: 30 Jun 2010 (Limited release)
Why can’t he see, how blind can he be?
Someday he’ll see that he was meant for me.
—“To Know Him Is To Love Him”
“If you’ve got a tainted past,” Phil Spector says “If they’ve got a picture of you with a gun, if you’ve done something wrong, if they think you’ve done something wrong, and they don’t like you for whatever reason, they will screw you.” Speaking in 2007, just before he was tried—the first time—for the murder of Lana Clarkson, Spector laments his fate: “That’s just the way the media works. That’s the way the cops work. If they like you, they love you, they won’t talk about it.”
Such perspective is plainly self-serving and self-interested. Throughout The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, Spector paints himself as a victim and a genius. For years, the creator of the Wall of Sound recalls, he pursued the sort of renown that might have left him untouched by institutional slings and arrows. By his account, his genius has been unappreciated, his greatest achievements (say, Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”) unrecognized. “I don’t get depressed,” he notes, but still, “I’m concerned with the fact that I have not been made a doctorate any college and Bill Cosby has.” And he deserves some commemoration, he says, for his cultural contributions. “I always compared it to what Da Vinci did when he went to a plain canvas. I always considered it not rock and roll, I always considered it art.”
Art is the point of departure for Vikram Jayanti’s inventive documentary, screening at the Film Forum through 13 July. Spector’s interview comprises its own form of art, seemingly equal parts cagey and delusional. On top of that first layer, the film adds on and overlays more layers, the Ronettes and John Lennon, courtroom footage (most focused on Spector’s face, mostly intently listening) and grim crime scene video, vibrant pop songs and gaudy on-screen text by music journalist Mick Brown. The layers create the film’s own echo chamber effect, its own wall.
While this construction is masterful and—like its musical model—a little dizzying, it doesn’t offer fixed truths regarding Spector’s life or Lana Clarkson’s death. Neither does it sort out the fragments of his biography, from his father’s suicide when Spector was 10 (“You know, when your father blows his head open, it’s not fun, and it leaves a scar on you”) to the death of his son, “little Phillip,” from leukemia (“I may not believe in God, but I know there’s a devil”). It does, however, insinuate the many interconnections between Spector’s past and present, his experience, his mind’s eye, and his art.
As Spector speaks, the film shows him in the past (for instance, performing with the Teddy Bears in 1958) as well as a then near-future, in the courtroom, his eyes rheumy and his palsied hands fluttering. “The judge,” he says, “he’s already said he doesn’t like me.” As Spector tells it, he’s used to what he considers unfair appraisals, even as he wants to fit in (his appearance during the actual sit-down interview, seated primly on a sofa in a pinstripe suit and carefully styled wig, attests to his performative reserve, even in his own home). “I never considered myself as an outlaw,” he says, “I always wanted to be accepted by the establishment.” His career suggests as much, as he pursued industry accolades and hit records. The film offers full-length performances of some of these, including the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, the better to demonstrate the productions’ remarkable virtuosity.
The TV footage also recalls the performers’ frankly stunning power—Ronnie Spector booms off the screen (even as her turbulent history with Spector is strikingly omitted by the film) and Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield’s heart-achey affects are literally highlighted by exceedingly dramatic spotlights. As an introduction to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” Spector points out, “Some people consider the greatest recording ever made and it’s certainly the most programmed song ever made: that is an historical fact.” As he uses the song as an occasion to compare himself once more to Da Vinci, the film also uses his comment, to show Da Vinci-like diagrams used in the courtroom, showing the “path of the bullet through [Clarkson’s] mouth.”
Here Jayanti wonders about the Righteous Brothers’ whiteness, inviting Spector to explain his search for “the voice” he finally found in Tina Turner. He was so sure of their collaboration on “River Deep Mountain High,” he says, that he was horrified by the song’s failure to top the U.S. charts in 1966. (“I was hurt for Tina,” he insists, “because I promised her it would be a number one record.”) When it was number one in England, he published an ad in Downbeat proclaiming, “Benedict Arnold Was Right,” and so effectively “killed the record.” “You’d spend money being that angry?” Jayanti asks. Spector nods, and the scene cuts to the courtroom, as Mick Brown’s comments on the song appear in text: “The sound is titanic, huge, and echoing, an unstoppable hurricane. It’s a record that sweeps you up in its peculiar psychosis and leaves you stunned and exhausted in its wake.” Indeed.
Repeatedly, the movie connects the Wall of Sound (as concept, as effect) and Spector’s many other walls, his refusal or inability to see himself honestly, his self-image as a victim. “When did you realize you were a loner?”, asks Jayanti from offscreen, where he remains throughout. The distance between this voice and the film’s subject allows for questions that are gently prodding but not provocative (and aside from a suggestion that the afro-wig made him seem un-serious, disturbingly uncritical).
His self-descriptions are as incredible and mutable as any other performance in the film. He felt lonely as a boy, he says: “We were poor, but the school was wealthy, middle class, white Jewish kids who were very stuck up. But I was not part of the clique.” This led him to focus on music, a means of simultaneously hiding and expressing himself (no one knew, he says, that “To Know Him Is to Love Him” was about his father). The film repeats this pattern, employing songs to obscure and refract truth, and more devastatingly, to raise questions as whether it’s possible to know truth (or “him”) at all. As you hear Spector’s own unadorned demo of “Spanish Harlem” (written with Jerry Leiber, unmentioned here), he reflects on his youthful brilliance, again, and you see shots of the crime scene. The sequence closes with a bit of video: his voice echoing eerily on a very bad recording, the driver Adriano Souza reports that Spector emerged from his house, saying, “I think I killed somebody.”
This line reverberates in the film, when Spector says the judge is angry because “somebody died,” when the prosecutor insists Clarkson was not just “somebody,” but “flesh and blood,” when Souza appears again alongside police photos of Spector on that night. Snippets of testimony from women as well as “expert witnesses” allude to Spector’s history of violence against women (again, conspicuously excepting Ronnie), his fondness for guns (“It was a gun, actually touching my temple”). Courtroom slides of guns found in the house, of blood spatter diagrams appear under 1963’s “Then He Kissed Me,” performed by the Crystals, as tearful women appear on the stand and Spector’s lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden, puts his arm around his shoulders. The song rises to its climax and Brown’s text attests, “It’s the closest thing to perfection pop music has produced.”
At once gorgeous and cacophonous, such utterly dense representation repeats and deconstructs Spector’s self-presentations. “It’s just a matter of convincing the artist you’re on the same level with them,” he explains. “You can do things that have art as their basis that aren’t in your heart, but are in your soul.” Again and again, the film reveals, art is a set of connections, among artists and consumers. And “hearts” and “souls” can be as artful as anything else.
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