During his murder trial, Phil Spector was treated by the media as the punch line of a bad joke. He was the crazy little guy in the terrible fuzzy wig eventually found guilty of shooting actress Lana Clarkson.
How the famed music producer got to such a sordid and tragic place is just part of the story in The Agony And The Ecstasy of Phil Spector, a documentary movie that lets Spector do almost all the talking.
Director Vikram Jayanti offers lengthy interviews with the wall-of-sound producer, layering the talk with the music and performers of Spector's heyday -- the Righteous Brothers, the Crystals, The Ronettes, Tina Turner -- and with footage from the Clarkson courtroom. The overall effect is as elaborate and fascinating as one of Spector's musical productions from the '60s.
The key is Spector. Presenting his unique mix of genius, ego, humour and buggin'-out craziness, Spector is a surprisingly articulate witness to the past. He talks about his father's suicide, about the rage that drives success and about how some people never get their due, hint hint.
In the course of the movie, Spector compares himself to Galileo, Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci and other geniuses, noting that while some people -- Bill Cosby, say, or Bob Dylan -- have honorary doctorates, Spector has none. Even Buddy Holly got a stamp, the producer points out, sulking a bit.
When he's funny, however, Spector is a treat to see. He gets in a few digs at Brian Wilson, wondering aloud, for example, how a song like Little Deuce Coupe could have needed two writers. Spector eventually talks himself into ego-land, saying that his productions, not the individual artists or songs, were what carried the pop hits he handled. The artists were interchangeable, he suggests, and the songs only survived because of his production work.
By the time he starts tossing around phrases such as, "a masterpiece of chiaroscuro," you may need to remind yourself that he's talking about material such as Be My Baby and Da Doo Run Run.
Many of Spector's hit songs play under the mostly banal footage of his murder trial, with a rundown of the guns he owned over here, and women lined up to testify about his scary past deeds over there. Enough is made of blood-spatter evidence to make you wonder if Clarkson's death might have been nothing more than a grotesque accident, but the film doesn't seem all that interested in showing Spector as either guilty or innocent -- just strange.
Filmmaker Vikram Jayanti was determined to uncover the Phil Spector behind the tabloid headlines and lurid trial coverage, and he has done a good job of that.