While this film's grandiose title, a riff on the 1961 novel about Michelangelo, matches Phil Spector's exalted view of himself, most of its truth (and any irony) is undercut by director Vikram Jayanti's fawning approach. The legendary music producer and convicted felon is a mesmerizing subject. But because there's little magic in the pic's mix, a one-dimensional portrait emerges--that of a bitter rock 'n' roll genius with an outsized persecution complex. Accuracy aside, the curiosity of even highly-invested baby-boomers will be dampened, and so The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is unlikely to outperform its niche expectations.
In a journalistic coup, Jayanti interviewed the ultra-reclusive Spector around the time of his 2007 trial for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. That one-on-one session, taped in Spector's LA-area manse, is the spine of the movie. Jayanti lobs ingratiating softballs that were either intended to allow Spector to reveal and hang or reveal and justify himself. Considering the hagiography that surrounds the interview, the latter must have been the case. The movie's two other major tracks consist of extensive "Court TV" footage from the trial (which resulted in a mistrial) and archival performances of the many well-known songs Spector wrote and/or produced, accompanied by embarrassingly purple commentary written by Mick Brown (author of Tearing Down the Wall of Sound) and shown in subtitles.
Brown's gushing, awkwardly presented liner notes discredit any attempt at objectivity without doing justice to Spector's achievements. You might suspect that the talented "Tycoon of Teen," who engineered so many popular tunes and invigorated multiple girl groups, The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner and even Lennon and McCartney with his sound-board wizardry, penned these flowery appraisals himself. As for the trial excerpts, it's apparent Jayanti intends to raise doubts about whether Spector shot Clarkson at his LA-area mansion after a night of partying at The House of Blues, where she worked. The defense argument that she died by her own hand, based on forensic evidence or a lack thereof, is tacitly endorsed by Jayanti's selections and less circumspectly by the tolling bell he inserts whenever it appears things are going poorly for Spector, with the implication that the legal system, to say nothing of the music industry, is out to get him.
What's needed in regard to both the musical and legal appraisals is a less pro-Spector point of view. Short of that, Jayanti should have let the songs and courtroom proceedings speak for themselves. Of course, the heart of the movie is Spector ruminating about himself. In his conversation with, or rather monologues addressed to, Jayanti, Spector comes off as funny, shrewd and, somewhat predictably, half-crazy. He fancies himself an artist of the highest order, repeatedly drawing comparisons to Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and, strangest of all, Galileo. Now serving a 19-year sentence following a second trial, Spector has real bees in his bonnet about Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney, and complains in a bizarrely offhand manner about the fact he's never been awarded an honorary doctorate.
Film historians will find Spector's take on Martin Scorsese's unauthorized use of "Be My Baby" in Mean Streets fascinating, as well as his reductive view of Hitchcock's Psycho. Although there are no flashes of violence or physical bravado, Spector's Napoleonic persona seems all the more certifiable because he's not necessarily wrong about his self-assessment as an outsider. He has an impish sense of humor about his infamously wild hairdos and takes hilariously cruel (and persuasive) shots at Buddy Holly and Brian Wilson. Palsied and wan, he almost cuts an endearing figure if it weren't so obvious there's a creepy, dark layer beneath.
All this is well worth the price of admission and Jayanti deserves props for capturing it. Still, a little counterpoint would make for a much better film. (Or how about making a biopic from Spector's POV based on this interview?) Whether it was a condition of being granted access or not, Jayanti can be faulted for appearing obsequious and taking Spector at face value. The unintended consequence of this uncritical approach is that by the end of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector you start to wonder about the significance of Spector's career. Because the film (which could also be titled Phil & Vikram Versus the World) rings hollow, strange and sad, you emerge hungry for a proper musicological study together with an episode of VH1 Behind the Music.
Distributor: Film Forum
Director: Vikram Jayanti
Producers: Vikram Jayanti and Anthony Wall
Running time: 102 min.
Release date: June 30 ltd.