The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Phil Spector

  • 2008
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Documentary

For years, conventional wisdom has held that Phil Spector is crazy -- the question usually was not if he had a screw loose, but if he was charmingly eccentric or genuinely dangerous. Long before Spector was accused of the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson, stories circulated about Spector’s uncertain temperament and fondness for guns, and Leonard Cohen...read more

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Reviewed by Mark Deming
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For years, conventional wisdom has held that Phil Spector is crazy -- the question usually was not if he had a screw loose, but if he was charmingly eccentric or genuinely dangerous. Long before Spector was accused of the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson, stories circulated about Spector’s uncertain temperament and fondness for guns, and Leonard Cohen cited one unnerving incident during a 1977 recording session: “At a certain point Phil approached me with a bottle of kosher red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other, put his arm around my shoulder, and shoved the revolver into my neck and said, ‘Leonard, I love you.’ I said, ‘I hope you do, Phil.’”

The tales that surrounded Spector’s reputation in the 1960s were a lot more benign, but the guy clearly seemed more than a bit contrary. Tom Wolfe profiled Spector in 1964 for the New York Herald-Tribune’s Sunday magazine, and his piece (one that’s genuinely admiring) begins with Spector demanding to get off an airliner that’s about to take off because he’s convinced it’s destined to crash, presumably because he was unhappy with the rain on the windows. Elsewhere in the article, Spector rants at length about how he’s not respected as an artist, the abuse he receives from strangers on the street, and his rivalries with others in the music business. At one point, he turns off all the lights in the offices for no clear reason, and someone says to him, “Phil, it’s dark in here. Why do you do these things?” Phil replies, “I’m paying a doctor 600 dollars a week to find out.”

All of these stories end up being weighed against Spector’s often remarkable body of work. In the early to mid-’60s, Spector produced a string of singles that are still the stuff of legend -- “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You” by the Ronettes, “Da Doo Ron Ron” by the Crystals, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers, “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner, among many, many others -- and these were Spector’s work in a way few producers are truly the guiding artist behind their recordings. Spector wrote the songs, oversaw the arrangements, selected the musicians, cast the lead singers, ran the long, often complicated recording sessions, and released the records through his own label, assuming creative control in a way few producers have before or since. When Spector later began working in a more traditional production style, serving as a facilitator for artists who wrote and performed their own music, his success was more varied; he helped turn a mass of tapes the Beatles couldn’t bear to finish into the album Let It Be and helped John Lennon and George Harrison make some of their first (and best) solo albums, but his later projects (especially albums with Leonard Cohen and the Ramones) found him wildly out of his element, and he’d been doing little in music before Clarkson’s death once again made him a household name.

Spector is a self-described “loner” who has avoided the press in recent decades, but not long before he was to go to trial in 2007 (a trial that would end with a hung jury; Spector was convicted at a second trial), he sat down with an interviewer from BBC Television for a rare on-camera interview. Director Vikram Jayanti has fashioned that chat with Spector into The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, a documentary created for the BBC’s arts series Arena that’s now being given a theatrical release in the United States. While the interview itself is often fascinating viewing, Jayanti doesn’t leave it at that; the interview has been intercut with footage from Spector’s 2007 murder trial, his words sometimes accompanying images of others silently discussing his possible guilt or innocence. Lengthy excerpts from Spector’s recordings score the film, as subtitles offer the words of Spector biographer Mick Brown on the importance and psychological subtext of his music.

One of the first songs heard in the film is the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” a song that was understandably controversial on first release in 1962, and The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector often struggles to find parallels between Spector’s body of work and his later infamy. But just as Spector’s best records were baroque constructions that paradoxically expressed simple sentiments, this film ambitiously plays out on several levels at once, even as it’s based on one guy talking in his living room. Often, as Spector speaks, we’re watching events happening in the courtroom, listening to one of his tunes, and reading Brown’s thoughts on the music all at once, and while Spector knew how to fit a number of intricate parts into a seamless musical whole, Jayanti’s touch isn’t nearly so graceful, so the film often sinks into a swamp of information overload, telling us so much at once that it all starts canceling itself out.

The film never seems to decide how it feels about the legal proceedings, which seem by turns farcical and deadly serious, and a clip from a comedy project featuring Lana Clarkson impersonating Little Richard may have been shown at the trial, but its inclusion here is baffling and ultimately embarrassing. The film is most compelling when it simply lets Spector talk, and though he clearly did this interview to present his own side of his story, his words add up to one of the strangest and most troubling portraits of this complex character ever presented. The Phil Spector who addresses the camera a few feet away from the white piano John Lennon played on “Imagine” is a fascinating, wildly uncomfortable bundle of ego, resentment, and paranoia. He sounds petulant when he declares he’s a greater artist than Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney, and still wants to know why the songwriters whose tunes were covered on his celebrated Christmas album never send him thank you cards. He mentions that the slogan of his high school graduating class was “Dare to Be Different,” then announces he was the only one in his class to amount to anything. He believes his legal troubles stem from his fame in the 1960s, and that people still want to punish him for being against the war in Vietnam. He spins a convoluted story about how he had the opportunity to destroy the careers of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, and seems to think it might have been better if he had. And you don’t want to get the guy started on the subject of Tony Bennett.

The contrast between the interviews with Spector and the newsreel coverage of his trial is telling -- Spector’s defense team presents a more reasoned case than the grandstanding Los Angeles prosecutors, and if at the end of the trial he doesn’t seem like a saint, more than enough reasonable doubt has been generated that his guilt is far from certain. But after hearing Spector speak at length about his life and times and watching the blank expression that’s burned into his face as he watches his own trial, it’s hard not to think the man must have done something, no matter what the facts have to say. And the film seems to share Spector’s inflated view of his role in some of his work, which doesn’t work to its advantage or his. Spector was clearly the guiding creative force behind such songs as “Be My Baby” and “Spanish Harlem,” but he seems to believe that the songs from the albums he produced with John Lennon -- songs like “God,” “Mother,” "Crippled Inside,” and “Imagine,” among the most personal works in the ex-Beatle’s repertoire -- are as much his own as Lennon’s, and Jayanti never lifts a finger to contradict this. (Spector also talks about producing Ravi Shankar without mentioning he was one of several producers on the live album The Concert for Bangladesh and never did a studio session with the man. And though “He Hit Me” gets an especially damning placement in the film, we’re not told it was co-written by a woman, Carole King.)

By the time The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector comes to a close, you’ll probably feel like you know more about Spector than you did before but understand him even less -- which is not entirely the fault of the director, as Spector hardly seems to understand himself. Still, by offering a limited perspective on Spector’s background and not attempting to clarify when his statements veer from the truth, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector only muddies the murky public perception of a man who, for good or ill, did so much to change the shape of pop music in his heyday. It’s difficult to say if Spector deserves better, but his creative legacy certainly does.

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  • Released: 2008
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: For years, conventional wisdom has held that Phil Spector is crazy -- the question usually was not if he had a screw loose, but if he was charmingly eccentric or genuinely dangerous. Long before Spector was accused of the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarks… (more)

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