The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

In his first substantial interview ever, and looking like Barry Manilow as Justin Beiber for Halloween, Phil Spector opens up about his relationship to music and his 2007 trial for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson (and before the 2009 trial) with astonishing frankness, vulnerability and introspection. Early on, Spector reveals that his first song, “To Know Him Is To Love Him” (one of the rare songs he also sang on) was not about a girl singing to her boyfriend but really Spector himself to his father and death, and like a love letter to the beyond. It’s a gorgeously sad revelation but still a guarded one. He often talks around certain details of his life (his father, his son, whom he refers to as Little Phillip, who died of leukemia) that don’t deal directly with his music career.

Jayanti uses the catalog of Spector’s records to essentially narrate the story of his life and the process of the 2007 trial, sometimes with subtlety and heart and other times with an iron fist and terrible irony. When the film opens with “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” we know we’re in for something rather audacious.

With courtroom video, Spector songs and text from music journalist Mick Brown all interleaved, the film is given a Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” treatment with layer upon layer. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Even though it’s clear that Jayanti wants to revel in the greatness of Spector’s work more than examine the trial itself, since the trial is the backdrop and impetus for the film it might have been interesting to hear more of it.

The question does arise – what is the connection between the genius of artists and the propensity for less than admirable behavior? Is it the feeling of being untouchable? That even though they’ve achieved greatness in some form the memory of a troubled youth simply overshadows their art? Both? Spector, while not addressing the likes of O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake (to whom his career prologue is more akin), instead likens himself to Woody Allen (and by extension, Roman Polanski) in terms of media and social perception of actions versus reality.

At one point, Spector compares himself directly to Michelangelo, Galileo and Da Vinci. Not a terribly egregious claim to make: Spector was arguably the greatest producer the music industry has ever seen. His mark on music is indelible, whether it’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (which Spector calls the greatest recording ever made) or his work with The Beatles, both as a group and with individual members. He doesn’t compare himself to Jesus, but since The Beatles had already cheekily made that claim, one can see that allusion was probably there.

Jayanti doesn’t try to sway the viewer for or against Spector in terms of trial coverage. What is presented is a good deal of forensic evidence in Spector’s favor, against a history of guns and violence against women. The judge in the 2007 case against Spector calls for a mistrial and Spector is tried again, in 2009, and this time sentenced to 19 years. His new wall of sound is probably not as sweet anymore, a cold epilogue to a monumental career.