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Showtime’s new four-part documentary Spector, focused on the spectacular rise and spectacular fall of music pioneer and convicted murderer Phil Spector, is the best possible promotion for Showtime’s four-part documentary We Need to Talk About Cosby.
It’s such a difficult tightrope to walk when you’re trying to explore a disgraced icon — not simply the separating of the art from the artist, but finding a smart way to contextualize the art within the life of the flawed person who created it.
Directors: Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott
W. Kamau Bell’s conversation starter about Bill Cosby handled this task exceptionally. It isn’t aesthetically dynamic, but We Need to Talk About Cosby is smart and challenging at every turn, forcing viewers to ponder inextricable linkages between aspects of Cosby’s career and a personal life that has seen him accused of sexual misconduct by 50+ women. The documentary emphasizes what you lose if you only have half of the discussion, and it provides the tools and vocabulary to carry that discussion beyond the film.
Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott’s Spector isn’t in denial about Phil Spector’s myriad imperfections — it would be hard to be — and it does an admirable thing in attempting to give Lana Clarkson a status beyond “tragic victim.” But the documentary is awash in questionable decisions that left me scratching my head instead of wanting to engage with any of the challenges in its portrait. There are weird aesthetic choices, limitations of structure and drawbacks to the self-selecting talking heads. Plus I’d argue that the choice of how to end the documentary undermines almost everything that came before.
As the basic historical recap goes: Phil Spector reshaped popular music, mostly for the better. Before he was 25, he’d written countless teen pop hits. He had a signature production tone with an unimaginably cool name — The Wall of Sound. He launched Tina Turner’s career, wrapped the career of the Beatles and then produced several of their defining solo hits. He wasn’t in the first round of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees (he had to wait until 1989), but he probably should have been.
But Phil Spector was difficult. He was domineering and egomaniacal. He battled various addictions and psychological demons. He became a recluse for decades. Oh and in 2009, he was convicted of the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson and spent the rest of his life in prison.
These aren’t “contradictions” that you want or need to reconcile. The documentary starts with the 911 call from Spector’s driver reporting the murder. The first episode skips ahead from its examination of Spector’s rise to introduce Clarkson and details about the murder, breaking chronology so that no stretch of adulation is allowed to go unchecked without the reminder of the story’s destination.
The documentary has a couple of hours in which the majority of the time is spent on old interviews with Spector and conversations with whichever of his colleagues and artists were willing to go on-camera to at least partially sing the praises of a convicted murderer. And that isn’t a bad assortment of people, including familiar names like Darlene Love or Paul Shaffer and many singers and session musicians and fellow producers and songwriters. Plus, Spector’s daughter Nicole is an increasingly important interview subject and a consultant on the series.
But then the last two hours are almost completely about Clarkson and the trial, which is treated with a non-sensationalistic attention to detail that was hard for the media to achieve when it was actually occurring. On the legal side, most of the important figures are present, including prosecutor Alan Jackson and defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden. Speaking on Clarkson’s behalf are her mother Donna, a half-dozen friends, various professional associates and even legendary filmmaker Roger Corman.
If the documentary achieves anything of real note, it’s tearing to shreds the “B-movie actress Lana Clarkson” narrative that proliferated at the time. Lana Clarkson was a working actress in Hollywood and if she was typecast as varying shades of bimbo or prostitute, the industry is more to blame than she was. And if “B-movie actress” was essentially transformed into her posthumous first name for years, the media is entirely to blame. In archival interviews and even in her talent sizzle reel, which Spector’s defense used to mock her at the trial, she comes across as grounded, funny and smart.
It’s hard, though, to take the refocusing seriously when the documentary still includes Spector-friendly talking heads saying things like, “It must have been awful painful to him to be in prison without his hairpiece” without even a shred of irony. You get one of his musicians saying “There was a piece of us that was on trial, too” and all I wanted to say was, “Ummm, no there wasn’t.” Ditto when Shaffer reflects on Spector’s lonely last years with, “I just thought, ‘What a horrible fate for a legend.'”
To me, there’s a responsibility from the filmmakers to either choose not to include banal stuff like that or to challenge it, and there’s no challenging here at all. If somebody is going to claim that the true tragedy of this whole story was Spector being alone and bald and in a cell — rather than the actual human life that was taken — the filmmakers need to directly ask people, “Do you think he was innocent?” Otherwise, you’re just letting delusion and puffery go unchecked. At least Nicole Spector stops short of explicitly defending her father, mostly noting his sincerity with her and her affection for him.
The directors don’t want to exonerate him either, but they’re perfectly happy to accept very simplistic pieces of armchair psychoanalysis, tracing everything back to Spector’s father’s suicide, which is depicted in the first episode in silver nitrate grainy black-and-white reenactments. There are almost no reenactments at all in the rest of the series. I’m usually pretty anti-reenactment, but I’m even more opposed to inconsistent use of style. If you do a four-hour documentary, either reenactments are a consistent part of how you’re telling the story or they’re not. Here, they definitely aren’t, just as there’s no meaningful way to justify all of the interminable drone shots around Spector’s mansion that are in the first episode and then never part of the vocabulary of the documentary again. The drone shots give the castle the impression of being almost haunted or, if you will, “spectral,” but if the directors want to make a Spector/spectral connection, they fail.
I’m getting distracted here, but that’s what Spector did to me. It has good points to make and some of the artistic materials needed to make those points, but no cohesive sense of how to tell the story or make the argument over four hours. And maybe you can be satisfied with a provocative story proficiently told. Maybe you won’t require cohesion, and maybe you won’t think that a documentary tasked with reclaiming and prioritizing Clarkson’s humanity shouldn’t give Spector and his supporters the last word on nearly everything. The conversation this documentary made me want to have was, unfortunately, mostly about a documentary that tackled a similar task better.
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