Phil Spector is a musical genius. He’s also an egomaniac who compares himself favorably to Michelangelo, Galileo and Da Vinci, a recluse with a penchant for firearms, and an inmate in Corcoran State Prison, where he’s currently serving a 19-to-life term for the 2003 murder of film actress Lana Clarkson. In The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, a BBC documentary beginning a theatrical run at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater this Friday September 10 (there are no play-dates scheduled for the East Bay), director Vikram Jayanti tries to reconcile the pricklier aspects of Spector’s personality with his astonishing artistic legacy.
A weedy Brooklyn kid who grew up poor, Phil Spector and his group The Teddy Bears became an overnight sensation in 1958 with his self-penned hit, To Know Him Is to Love Him, a morose ballad dedicated to the memory of his late father. Spector’s future, however, lay not on stage but behind the console at Hollywood’s Goldstar Studios, where he produced an almost unbroken string of hits between 1961 and 1966. The legendary chart failure of Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High so disgusted Spector that he immediately retired, and he’s only worked in fits and starts since.
Jayanti’s film blends 2006 interview sequences of Spector at home with courtroom footage from his first trial, classic performances by artists such as The Ronettes, The Crystals, and The Righteous Brothers, and a few very choice selections from Tony Palmer’s magisterial ‘70s rockumentary All You Need is Love. It’s an unabashed love letter that presents the man in the best possible light: immaculately dressed and coiffed in the interview segments, Spector is tossed a series of softballs by the narrator (presumably Jayanti himself) and knocks most of them out of the park. Jayanti edits the courtroom scenes accordingly: we hear a lot from the defense attorneys, but less is made of Spector’s immediate post-shooting statement “I think I just killed somebody”.
Indeed, guilt or innocence seem of only secondary importance to Jayanti, who’s more interested in helping Spector break free from his decades-old calcified stereotype as a nutty hermit. Even in such a sympathetic setting, however, Spector’s delusions of grandeur and arrogance frequently undercut Jayanti’s efforts. He’s not an easy man to like, he knows it, and he doesn’t particularly care.
Though fans of ‘60s pop will be thoroughly familiar with much of the music featured in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, it does feature a few rare treats. There’s an exquisite and deeply sublime demo recording of Spanish Harlem sung by Spector himself, as well as an astonishing live performance of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ by The Righteous Brothers that will leave you weak in the knees.
Jayanti’s film also provides potent evidence of Spector’s post-retirement dependence upon the goodwill of The Beatles. Not only did he ‘rescue’ the “Get Back” sessions and transform them into the Fabs’ 1970 swansong “Let It Be” (Phil has bitter words here for Paul McCartney, who didn’t approve of the producer’s work), he also recorded much of John Lennon’s best early solo work as well as George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”.
One can quibble about much in this film (Mick Brown’s near-illegible scholarly subtitles are an annoying distraction, and there’s no time spent on Spector’s late ‘70s work with Leonard Cohen and The Ramones), but if you enjoyed George Hickenlooper’s Mayor of the Sunset Strip — another documentary about a slightly loopy music biz mover and shaker —you’ll get similar mileage from The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector. Comparisons to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel aside, it’s a worthy if flawed tribute to a monumental body of musical work.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.