The big "get" of "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector" is a long, rambling, megalomaniacal interview with the legendary producer, conducted during his first murder trial in 2007, when he was free on a $1 million bond. Spector's hands tremble with palsy. He is wearing a Dutch-boy blond wig for the occasion. He trumpets the fabulousness of the 1960s, his decade of glory, when he and some other people fought to end the Vietnam War. He talks about the Beatles, and especially John Lennon, both of whom he produced. (Paul McCartney became an enemy after Spector heavily reconfigured his completed track, "The Long and Winding Road.") He displays a curious antipathy toward the singer Tony Bennett, and grouses about the late Buddy Holly, whose recording career lasted only three years but who nevertheless has his own postage stamp. (Guess who doesn't.) He speaks of himself in the same breath as Michelangelo, da Vinci and Bach (although Wagner would seem a more plausible classical influence on his famous "Wall of Sound" productions). In short, Spector is mesmerizing, exasperating, and a number of other adjectives besides.
The documentary, directed by Vikram Jayanti and funded by the BBC, contains important chunks of rock history. But it's an uneasy marriage of materials. Presumably for legal reasons, Spector has nothing to say about the death of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson, who was shot in the mouth in the foyer of Spector's castle-like mansion outside of Los Angeles in the early-morning hours of February 3, 2003. So Jayanti's film covers the murder case with contemporaneous news reports, crime scene photos, and courtroom footage of Spector sitting stone-faced at the defense table in a succession of eccentric wigs. These sections of the movie are fascinating. But the director also endeavors to incorporate an account of Spector's illustrious career through vintage performance clips of the Ronettes ("Be My Baby"), the Righteous Brothers ("You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'") and Ike and Tina Turner (a concert rendition of "River Deep-Mountain High"), among other acts. To his great credit, Jayanti allows these performances — some of them rarely seen — to play out at length. But Spector's indelible hits sit awkwardly in a movie about a murder case — especially one in which we're given a brief glimpse of Lana Clarkson's bloody corpse slumped in a chair. (She was killed with one of the many guns Spector kept in his house.) And occasional attempts to have the records comment on the proceedings feel trite — especially in the case of the notorious 1962 Crystals track, "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)," a single so reviled at the time of its release that Spector felt compelled to withdraw it shortly afterward. (It has since been covered several times, most recently by Grizzly Bear.)
At his first trial, Spector's lawyers argued a lack of forensic evidence proving their client murdered Clarkson (he claimed she was drunk and shot herself). And they objected to the testimony of some of the producer's female acquaintances, who recounted instances of his violent nature. That trial ended in a hung jury. A year later, though, the 69-year-old defendant was back in court for a retrial. This time he was found guilty of second-degree murder, and sentenced to 19-years-to-life in prison. Given the actuarial probabilities, Phil Spector's long and winding road would seem to have come to an end.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "The Last Airbender," also new in theaters this week.
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