The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Music producer Phil Spector helped shape the sound of pop music in the 1960’s and 70’s. His major triumphs in the music biz include works with the Beatles, the Supremes, the Beach Boys and the Righteous Brothers, utilizing his trademark “wall of sound.” He had the world in his hands for many years until the tragic day of 3 February 2003 when he was arrested for the brutal murder of actress cum model Lana Clarkson and we see “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector.”

Robin:
BBC television commissioned TV documentary maker Vikrim Jayanti to interview the famed music producer during the interim between his 2008 mistrial and the 2009 conviction for murder, garnering a 19-year prison term that Spector is now serving. The outspoken, egotistical producer talks mostly about his influences on the music business, his accomplishments and compares himself to the creative genius of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.

It is announced, at the beginning of “The Agony…,” that the Spector-produced songs will be played in their entirety and they are, setting the tone of the documentary that unfolds. It is, first, a document about the man’s music and, second, about his trial for murder. The trial scenes are nearly silent, with Spector’s songs – “And Then He Kissed Me,” “Be My Baby,” “You Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Let It Be, “River Deep, Mountain High” and more – getting full play over the trial sequences that graphically demonstrate how Spector put a gun in the mouth of victim Lana Clarkson and pulled the trigger.

This is an unusually formatted documentary that, in other hands, may have concentrated on the trial instead of the music but this makes for an imaginative and entertaining documentary. The only real problems I have are the use of two full length stage videos of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” and then play them again, in their entirety, over courtroom footage. While I love the music, including the videos interrupts the documentary flow and makes the film bloated. It would have been leaner and meaner without the music videos. I give it a B-.

Laura:
In the time leading up to his 2007 trial for the murder of fading Hollywood starlet Lana Clarkson in 2003, director Vikram Jayanti ("The Golden Globes: Hollywood's Dirty Little Secret") and cinematographer Maryse Alberti ("Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," "The Wrestler") visited their subject in his home to talk about his life and career, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector."

Now here's an unusual approach to analyzing an artist.  It's not always successful, but Jayanti's use of Spector's music as a gateway to understanding the man, and, potentially his crime, is thinking out of the box.  Jumping from current interview footage to Court TV video to archival video of both the man and the acts he produced, Jayanti unearths some valid psychological insights into Spector.  Unfortunately, he also comes down strongly in favor of Spector's defense and pads his film unnecessarily by following Spector songs used over trial footage with the same music in performance video.

The first tidbit we learn is that 'To Know Him Is to Love Him' was not only about Spector's dad, who killed himself when Phil was only eight years old.  In fact, the song's title is the engraving on Spector Sr.'s gravestone.  We hear the song in a totally new light and begin to learn about what makes Spector tick.  (Jayanti's concurrent use of John Lennon's "Mother" doesn't work nearly so well here.)  We learn that the man has no problem with ego, comparing himself repeatedly to DaVinci or saying that he is more the artist than Lennon or McCartney. The 'Wall of Sound" producer is, not surprisingly, into control.  Late in the piece, Jayanti prompts him to retell a story about "Mean Streets."  A young  Scorcese used his "Be My Baby" without permission and Spector clearly gets off on the fact that, for a while, he 'held' Scorcese and DeNiro's careers in his hand.  The song, of course, made the film by his reckoning.

After setting the stage with the Spector produced but not written "He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)," Jayanti's most clear cut pairing of music and murder trial is his use of 'Then He Kissed Me,' where a series of ex girlfriends describe Spector's threatening use of handguns while the director works to equate a kiss with a gunshot.  Analytical quotes from Mick Brown's "Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector," are used as scrawling subtitles throughout.  It's clear Jayanti's trying to layer his film like Spector built up his studio tracks, but his many hits are undone by multiple misses.  Jayanti doesn't ask Spector directly about Lana Clarkson while interviewing him, and is, in fact, quite the fan as interviewer. Aside from the damaging girlfriend testimony, most of the trial footage featured deals with Lana Clarkson's troubles to back up the suicide defense and Spector's lawyer hammering away at a lack of forensic evidence.  It would have been nice to see the prosecution's explanation for the lack of spray on Spector's white jacket or to hear some kind of explanation as to why Spector told his driver 'I think I killed somebody.'

Still, as a portrait of a man behind the musical scene who created some of rock's most memorable sounds, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector" is never boring.  Jayanti's taken a unique approach, and the producer who emerges is a very flawed and strange man but undisputed musical genius.

B
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