The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector -- Film Review

"The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector"
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"He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" is one of the more obscure songs heard in "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector," Vikram Jayanti's documentary portrait of the visionary producer who also is one of the most troubled and troubling figures in the history of 20th century pop music. The song encapsulates the paradox of Phil Spector: a catchy and propulsive performance by the great girl group, the Crystals, with a message so disturbing and inappropriate that it was soon removed from most radio playlists.

As such Spector-produced classics as "Then He Kissed Me" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" saturate the soundtrack of this film, one is reminded just how wonderful his musical legacy is, only to have your breath taken away by the megalomania he exhibits in the rare interview Jayanti was able to obtain during the producer's first trial for the murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson.

Spector might have recorded his legendary "Wall of Sound" hits in mono, but Jayanti takes an unusual multitracked approach: The songs often play out over silent, banal footage of the trial while florid comments about the recordings by critic Mick Brown crawl across the bottom of the screen. The juxtaposition almost cries out: All that great music has come to this?

What makes "Ecstasy" essential viewing for any pop-music fan and any student of celebrity pathology is the interview itself. Spector, despite his immodest comparisons of himself to Bach, da Vinci and Galileo, is surprisingly entertaining company, not simply the mad recluse with crazy hair that was his shocking image during the trials. He's eminently quotable, referring to his records as "little symphonies for the kids," or weighing in on the Woody Allen-Soon Yi Previn scandal: "I could have introduced him to a lot of women."

His analysis of why Hitchcock's "Rebecca" is a better film than "Psycho" is priceless: "Psycho" is an "edit film," the same way Brian Wilson's revered "Good Vibrations" is an "edit record." For Spector, editing is a cheat, a lazy shortcut compared to his painstakingly layered records.

Spector also discusses his collaborations with the Beatles -- his John Lennon impression is hilarious -- and insists that his production of the album "Let It Be" salvaged a mess, no matter what Paul McCartney says to the contrary. He also takes credit for the careers of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, claiming that only Lennon's entreaty kept him from filing an injunction against "Mean Streets" for its unauthorized use of his classic "Be My Baby."

Where "Ecstasy" falls short is in its impressionistic treatment of the first murder trial, which fails to give the information one needs to know to decide whether justice truly was done. We see a silent montage of women apparently testifying to how Spector held guns to their heads but are never given the context.

Spector's attorney seems to make a good case that, based on the forensic evidence, Clarkson killed herself -- a defense that resulted in a hung jury. The second trial, which brought a guilty verdict and a sentence of 19 years to life, is summed up with one title card. One never learns what compelling evidence swayed the second jury.

It's frustrating not having more details about the night that ended Clarkson's life and destroyed this funny, egotistical, brilliant, volatile, cloistered and dangerous man. But it's a privilege to spend time with the influential artist behind the sensational tabloid headlines. "To Know Him Is to Love Him," the title of his first hit at age 17, might never apply to the wacky convicted killer Phil Spector, but this movie helps one see him more clearly.

Opens: Wednesday, June 30
Production: BBC Arena/VIXPIX Films
Director: Vikram Jayanti
Producers: Vikram Jayanti, Anthony Wall
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Editor: Emma Matthews
No rating, 102 minutes
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