The Agony and the Ecstacy of Phil Spector
It is always interesting the way our perceptions can be molded by the media. I do not think too many people would mention legendary record producer Phil Spector and comedian Joan Rivers in the same sentence. At first glance they do not seem to have anything in common. It could be argued that both are in the entertainment business, albeit in very different areas. In terms of age both are in their seventies. A more interesting common fact is that both Spector and Rivers are each the subject of separate documentaries currently unspooling in theatres not far from each other. “The Agony and Ecstacy of Phil Spector” opens June 30 at Film Forum and “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” continues its run at IFC Center. Both documentaries were made with the full cooperation of their subjects who are remarkably candid about their lives and careers in the entertainment business.
Oh yes, there is one big difference. The Spector documentary was shot (no pun intended) during Spector’s first of two trials in which he was a defendant in the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson in his home in February 2003. Clarkson’s death is the film’s “elephant in the room” as Spector holds forth on everything from the loneliness and anger in his life stemming from maltreatment by high school contemporaries (which, he claims, gave him the drive to succeed in life), his work with the Beatles, his legendary “Wall of Sound” and his first hit “To Know Him is to Love Him.”
Yes, Spector comes across as an eccentric raconteur, but he also comes across (dare I say it?) as reasonable, if a bit grandiose. Spector is coherent, makes sense and is a far cry from the “big haired” lunatic the media made him out to be during his murder trials. Granted, his comparing himself to Galileo and Bach is humorously extreme but, at the same time, also revealing of his ego.
Spector’s music was known for his “Wall of Sound.” The technique consisted of very lush scores using layers of sound. Similarly the film combines Court TV type footage of Spector’s trial with his music heard over it, further combined with subtitles that give critical commentaries about his music. The simultaneous effect of this visual and aural layering is a portrait of who Spector was and who he has become.
What about the fact that he has been accused of murder? Spector likens Clarkson’s gunshot death in his mansion to someone dying of a heart attack in his mansion. He seems to disregard the fact that the latter is a natural death and the former an unnatural one.
Spector’s defense team tries to make the case that Clarkson’s death was a suicide. While the documentary is not an examination of all trial evidence there is one piece that argues very convincingly for Spector’s innocence. The evidence combined with the way in which Spector carries himself in the interviews made me wonder if he was guilty, in much the same way that the media’s depiction of him made me think that he was guilty.
The Agony and the Ecstacy of Phil Spector, Director Vikram Jayanti, 2008,
BBC Arena/VIXPIX Films,102 minutes