There is a moment in the new HBO film Phil Spector when the attorney Linda Kenney Baden, played by Helen Mirren, sees her client arriving at the Los Angeles courthouse to be tried for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson. Writer-director David Mamet keeps the camera on Mirren's face as it turns from eagerness and curiosity to shock and amazement: Spector, played by Al Pacino, is wearing a wig resembling a gigantic dandelion — "my homage to Jimi Hendrix," Spector tells her later. The outlandishness of the sixtysomething music producer's 'do serves as a symbol of the difficulty in defending this great pop-music artist. As Pacino tells TV Guide Magazine: "When you see that wig, you go, 'Uh-oh — all bets are off. This is gonna be tough, to get a jury to buy into this guy as someone whose motives seem rational.'"
Nevertheless, the combination of Oscar and Emmy winners Pacino and Mirren, along with playwright, screenwriter and director Mamet, takes you inside Spector's bewigged head. Phil Spector is, as Mamet says forcefully, not "a biopic — I didn't want to do And then I wrote 'Spanish Harlem.' The important thing for me was the fall from grace, the mythological aspect of this story: The most famous music producer in the world ends up jammed up in a court case."
Before 2003, Spector was known as the creator of the Wall of Sound, a lavishly bombastic style of record production that turned passionate pop music into catchy grand opera. Starting in the 1960s with hits such as the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron," on through the 1970s and Spector's collaborations with artists as varied as John Lennon and the Ramones, the maestro was famous for his lush take on pop romanticism — as well as for his mercurial temper and his disconcerting habit of pulling out a gun to enforce his wishes in the recording studio.
A scene in the movie dramatizes this, as a younger, mustachioed Spector, frustrated after hours of botched takes by an unnamed band, asks an assistant to order in some Chinese food, grabs a pistol, shoots two holes in the ceiling and bellows to the cowering musicians that they're going to "play until the lemon chicken comes!" Notes Mamet: "People asked when I started, 'Do you want to meet Phil Spector?' I said no — I can write crazier than he can talk."
After 2003, Spector became something more diminished: A loonily coiffed, befuddled murder suspect, accused of putting a gun into the mouth of actress Lana Clarkson and pulling the trigger. (Spector claimed Clarkson shot herself.) Spector, his career in eclipse, increasingly unknown to a younger generation, became a tabloid freak. Which is what intrigued Mamet.
"I started with the idea that nobody knew who this guy was anymore," says Mamet, "and used the recording scene as sneaky narration, to give you the sense of who he was." The movie culminates with a mock trial designed to prepare Spector for the first, 2007 case, which ended in a mistrial. (The jury in a 2009 retrial found him guilty of second-degree murder.)
Mamet says the decision not to include much of the court proceedings in the film gave him more dramatic latitude: "If you go to trial, one is bound by facts and by good manners to use the actual transcript." The result is a more freewheeling view of Spector, a man who, as one attorney says in a very Mamet-esque locution, is "a freak: They're gonna convict him of I Just Don't Like You."
Pacino, asked if he was afraid the outlandish wigs might overshadow his performance, says, "Absolutely not. I thought they were great. I thought the wigs could do a lot of the acting for me — like an accent or a limp." He chuckles. "How can you go wrong with a wig on your head?"
Or with Mirren at your side? Pacino and Mirren spend long scenes together while client and lawyer debate defense strategy and life philosophies. It was the first time Pacino had worked with Mirren, and, he says, "Boy, do I wanna do it again! I just love that woman. She's up there in the top two or three people I've ever worked with."
Mamet says that, despite the grim subject matter and what he describes as "a week of 12-hour days just shooting the mock trial," they all had "a lot of fun" making Phil Spector. Pacino agrees, saying, "I don't have a memory" of the long hours — the time seemed to fly by. That's probably not the case for Spector, who's currently serving 19 years to life in a California prison.
Pacino confesses he had no idea that, in an eerie coincidence, Clarkson was an extra in Scarface, one of his most famous movies. "Seriously? Wow. I never knew that. This is the first time I'm hearing it." He pauses and then, his voice rising, comes out with the kind of Pacinoian exclamation his impersonators love: "That's weird. Wee-ahd!"
Phil Spector premieres Sunday at 9/8c on HBO.