The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector
Dir. Vikram Jayanti Now Playing: FILM FORUM
If there were stages of grief for our dying culture, they would have to move from hedonistic to scandalized to weary. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, Vikram Jayanti’s new documentary about the revolutionary pop and rock producer who defined sound as we know it, showcases all those many moods of the American public. Taking its name from the title of Irving Stone’s historical novel about Michelangelo, the film allows Spector to lionize himself as a hero of 20th century culture, while cutting in edifying yet numbing scenes of Spector’s trial for the murder of actress and bar hostess Lana Clarkson. Along with Michelangelo, Spector himself (and sometimes Jayanti) compares the producer to Hitchcock, Irving Berlin, and even Tony Bennett. He’s as good as, if not better than all of them, Spector says. Anyone who could say that, staring into a camera while facing trial for murder, must be a bad man, but Spector, when you’re right, you’re right.
Jayanti boasts the most extensive access to Phil Spector by an interviewer to date. But Spector is an unrelenting control freak known for living in an armory surrounded by more bodyguards and handlers than Michael Jackson. The film suffers greatly from what appear to be contractual restrictions placed on it by Spector. There is no mention of any of his marriages, the drug addiction that has led him to be imprisoned at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, or the Parkinson’s disease that is so clearly evident in his movement. The contract struck between interviewer and interviewee is likely more complex than the film, which is primarily a retrospective of phenomenal Phil Spector songs, and Phil Spector quips that feature the surety of insight which is the truest mark of the psychopath.
By using the trial as its narrative framework, The Agony seeks to find cohesion between the public standing of Spector’s body of work and the longtime perception of him as a maniacal time bomb. The film closes on Spector and his beautiful new wife driving away from trial, after receiving the news that the jurors could not reach a verdict. A hung jury, that’s poetic. Even more proof that there is no way to pass judgment that takes into account all that Spector is. Unfortunately for Jayanti’s understated metaphor, that mistrial did not end the saga. In brief white text on a black screen, the film is forced to admit that Spector is now serving 19 years in a California prison for the murder of Lana Clarkson, one in a long line of beautiful women who make up the lurid “Hollywood Babylon” culture.
Like everything about the life of Phil Spector, the murder seems pre-ordained. But The Agony does not mention the long line of musicians who feared for their lives while working with the producer (most notably Dee Dee Ramone, who was allegedly forced to complete a bass solo at gunpoint), or the general consensus that Spector would kill one day. Maybe Jayanti thought it was too obvious to mention, maybe Spector nixed the subject matter, or maybe Jayanti wants the audience to consider its own complicity in the matter. The omission is the elephant in the room—incidentally an elephant would look great in the room where Spector is interviewed, sitting on the stool behind the piano where John Lennon recorded “Imagine.” If he’s such a villain, the elephant wonders, why is the audience watching a movie about Phil Spector rather than Barbarian Queen, Lana Clarkson’s 1985 starring vehicle, produced by Roger Corman.
The question is never presented outright or answered by the film, and because of that the sequences that highlight the trial feel even more exploitative. It’s distressing I’d rather hear stories about John Lennon and the Righteous Brothers than consider the possible state of mind of poor, doomed Lana Clarkson. Days later I’m still singing to myself “He’s a Rebel.”
The Agony is a far better revue of ’60s and ’70s pop music than it is an investigation. It offers a refresher course on the impossible achievements of the man, at every turn reminding me “oh yeah, he did that TOO!” and proves that even an obvious megalomaniac can be humble. He wrote the story of every love affair—“Then He Kissed Me;” “Be My Baby;” “Chapel of Love;” “You’ve Lost that Loving Feelin’”—and created producer culture. Whatever character attack Jayanti was intending by including Spector’s redundant rambling comparisons of himself to Bach, Beethoven, Da Vinci, Galileo, and Michelangelo, Spector dissects his own work at the level of and with the clarity that only the obsessed can. When most artists discuss their creations, it’s time to leave. Spector gives a clinic on creating pop hits (though the price of admission is steep). Everything bad anyone ever said about him is true, everything good ever said about him only scratches the surface of his talent. Which are things about Phil Spector everybody already knows. So why watch the film?
Unless Peter Sellers is somehow resurrected, there will be no actor able to do justice to Spector—so The Agony is as useful a document as we are likely to get, and it does create a new context for Spector, though not in the mold of the tortured genius Jayanti–with Spector’s apparent collusion–intended to present. “I could strut sitting down I was so brazen,” he says about his younger self, as though he’s the model of humility now.
Spector reflects about himself with the candor of a man not long for the world (which he probably isn’t). The one time he addresses his innocence in the death of Lana Clarkson, he sounds like a paranoid liar. When he looks to the past, Spector sounds like a paranoid liar with cogent insight about a bygone era. Cole Porter wrote the folk songs of his generation, he says, and his biggest resentment is towards Tony Bennett’s resurgent career. I can only imagine how Bennett must have felt (as soon as someone managed to track him down playing the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana) upon being told that Spector dreams of a legacy like Bennett’s.
Though Spector’s songs–many of which are played twice in their entirety in the course of the film–still sound groundbreaking, the man sounds like a relic. For all the future Lana Clarksons, we can only hope.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.