The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector

The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector featured image

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector
Vikram Jayanti, director of this documentary feature
Starring: Phil Spector, Lana Clarkson, Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers, The Ronettes

Baby boomers and lovers of classic rock will go to their graves proclaiming the genius of Phil Spector. The producer and often co-writer of such hits as He’s A Rebel, Da-Doo-Ron-Ron, Then He Kissed Me and Be My Baby, Spector ruled AM radio charts and 45rpm record sales in the early ’60s when teenaged angst and romance first became hugely important in North American pop culture. He created a “wall of sound” in his productions, which were compared to Wagner and dubbed by Spector “little symphonies for the kids.”

The diminutive talkative Spector was the subject of an influential article by essayist and novelist Tom Wolfe, “First Tycoon of Teen” in 1964, which depicted him as being an intensely charismatic figure, on the cutting edge of the evolving sensibilities of the early Sixties. Is Phil Spector’s story one of too much too soon–even if he only got his come-uppance 40 years later, in his own 60s?

Vikram Jayanti’s documentary feature concentrates on the period when Spector was tried for the death of Lana Clarkson, a B movie actress, who accompanied him to his house after a meeting at Dan Aykroyd’s club House of the Blues in L.A. in 2003. Clarkson was found dead of head wounds caused by a gun shot through her mouth. In conflicting accounts, Spector told his limousine driver, seconds after the gunshot, that he “might have killed somebody” but later he claimed that Ms. Clarkson had committed suicide in front of him. Still later, he said that she “had kissed the gun.”

Jayanti got access to shoot the resultant murder trial, which became a media sensation. Spector’s counselors established that the beautiful but aging Clarkson was depressed about her declining career and increasingly desperate about her personal situation–she was near bankruptcy with no acting prospects. The state’s attorneys used Spector’s erratic behaviour–legendary in rock circles–against him. They made a persuasive case that Spector often threatened people with guns and had a history of physical abuse against women since his first marriage to Ronnie Bennett, the lead singer of his pop group The Ronettes.

A veteran documentarian, well known in England for bio-portraits of figures ranging from noir novelist James Ellroy to artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel, Jayanti has made a film that moves seamlessly between Spector’s trial and a series of long interviews that the beleaguered producer granted to the filmmaker. In it, Spector is surprisingly coherent, admitting to his manic-depressive activity and recognizing that his art has been an expression of an overwhelming sense of isolation and sadness.

Jayanti establishes a musical and emotional correlation between Spector and John Lennon, both of whom lost parents at significant times in their childhoods. Spector’s first hit To Know Him is to Love Him was understood to be a girl’s lament for a boy who may not adore her; in fact, those are the words inscribed on Spector’s father’s grave and the song reflects the boy’s despair over the loss of a parent who committed suicide. Lennon’s intense Mother, produced sensitively by Spector, examined the British singer/songwriter’s emotions over the death of his mother in a car accident in Liverpool. Jayanti makes the case that Lennon was attempting to understand what the passing of his mother meant to him while Spector’s equally haunting song evokes no closure.

In The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector, Jayanti attempts to represent Spector’s perspective during a trial for his life. He does give us insights into the delusional, vulnerable but occasionally charming human being that is Spector. A man who compares his art–that of the three minute song–to da Vinci is perhaps laughable but there’s nothing funny about his fate. Phil Spector is in prison for life for the manslaughter of Lana Clarkson.

Does he deserve his fate? Jayanti never says so–but it’s hard to believe that he’s innocent. A woman died and the evidence is overwhelming that he killed her.

And yet…

Phil Spector is happy to recount to Jayanti that many critics consider You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, sung by The Righteous Brothers and produced by him, to be the greatest rock song of all time. It’s a recording of depth and colour and passion. Is it opera? It’s the closest that rock has ever come to matching Verdi and Wagner.

The maker of that recording–one which I will listen to and love till my dying day—is languishing in prison, likely to die there. And, quite likely, deservedly.

Vikram Jayanti has come as close as any filmmaker is likely to capture the tragic fate of Phil Spector, a man who has lost that lovin’ feeling. It’s gone and I’m surprised that he “can go on.”

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