Barnaby Monk 5 a.m., Feb. 10
Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector
No opus in the Phil Spector songbook links the megalomaniac to the madman better than He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss), The Crystal’s eerie paean to S&M. When selecting a lyric to open a documentary portrait of the reclusive billionaire genius living out the final act of his life in jail for the shooting death of Lana Clarkson, there’s no more damning ditty than this. Sadly, that’s about as unbiased as it gets in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector.
According to Spector, most record producers are mere interpreters. He was an architect, and speaking in rock ‘n roll terms, Spector’s comparisons to Galileo, DaVinci, Modigliani, and Michelangelo are not off base. So dynamic was his Wall of Sound technique, that it transformed even the tinny speakers of an AM car radio into something akin to a live symphony performance.
The record producer, who has a long history of violence and abuse, granted documentary filmmaker Vikram Jayanti an all-access pass to his life and the result feels like an authorized biography. Jayanti is stuffed so deep into Spector’s back pocket that the film can’t help be anything but hopelessly slanted.
Jayanti began filming one month before the trial in November 2007, and Spector is the only subject to be interviewed for the project. Perhaps that is why Jayanti feels the need to include onscreen critical footnotes taken from Mick Brown's Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector. The text, appearing over testimony or news footage, plays like an intrusive “pop-up video” track, desperate to illustrate that long before becoming a convicted murderer, there was genius.
Jaynati’s heavy hand frequently gets in the way. Spector put a bullet in Clarkson's head. Brown’s observation that Chapel of Love seems “to lodge in the brain and won’t let go” is spelled out beneath images of revolvers found in Spector’s home. And did we really need John Lennon’s Woman is the Nigger of the World backing a brief ‘tribute” to Clarkson?
An opening inter-title informs us, “The Spector-produced songs that follow the title sequence are played in full in order to properly present the musical genius of ‘his little symphonies for the kids.’” Jayanti forms his own way of “properly presenting” the material over Brown’s subtitled critiques, while the songs play beneath images from the trial or performance footage. Add narration and dialog that further distract, and one gets the feeling that Jaynati is trying to crib Spector’s technique to build a “wall of visuals.” It doesn’t work, nor does he do the songs proper justice.
When asked about his infamous electro-Jiffy Pop hairstyle Spector replies, “It was a tribute to Albert Einstein and Beethoven – it was done in jest, but I was wearing my hair like Albert Einstein in those days….That day it got a little extreme.” Trying to be whimsical by poofing one’s locks while on trial for murder is not a good way to enamor yourself to a judge who already looks at you with cocked-eyebrow.
Spector attempts to bolster his case by drawing personal analogies to past foibles of the rich and famous. He rallies to Woody Allen defense, claiming the comedian, who married his wife’s adopted daughter, will best be remembered as a sex pervert, while at the same time relishing the seldom-acknowledged fact that Tony Bennett was a coke addict in the ‘70’s. (What the hell did Tony Bennett do to Spector to incur such wrath?)
John Lennon threw Martin Scorsese under the bus the day he called Spector to inform him that The Ronettes’ Be My Baby was being used to back the opening credits to Mean Streets. Spector called his attorneys asking who this guy “Skeezy” was, demanding they slap an injunction on the film. Spector claims that Scorsese and Robert DeNiro owe him their careers. Guilty as charged!
It’s a mess of a film, but as train-wrecks go, it’s worth hopping the caboose. Spector is a world-class storyteller, and in that sense it’s not hard to understand Jaynati’s fascination. Just don’t allow the director’s fawning get in the way of the facts.
Spector is frequently asked about the degree of loneliness a king must experience when walled inside his giant castle. He pauses for a moment’s contemplation before responding, “Yeah, but living in one room? Very lonely. You and the bathroom, man.” We mock the things we are to be. Enjoy your current accommodations, Phil.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector screens as part of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival at Clairemont Reading Town Square (Sat., February 11 @ 9:00 PM and Wednesday, February 15 @ 1 p.m.) and UltraStar Mission Valley (Sunday, February 12 @ 3:30 PM).
Reader Rating: Two Stars
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