REVIEW: Questions Remain in Messy, Sordid Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Movieline Score:

agonyphilspector_rev_2.jpgThe ballad of Phil Spector is sadder than any song this strange, reclusive man wrote or produced in a career spanning some 50 years. It's one thing to be a megalomaniacal genius whose work has given immeasurable hours of pleasure to teenagers of all ages. It's another to be a murderer: In May 2009 Spector was convicted in the 2003 killing of Lana Clarkson and sentenced to 19 years to life. Squaring the contradictory corners of Phil Spector's life would be impossible. To his credit, in The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector filmmaker Vikram Jayanti doesn't even try.

It's a drag, then, that all Jayanti does manage to come up with is a portrait that's alternately fawning and disapproving. In its thoughtful, frowny mode, the movie's unspoken undertone is, "No one likes a murderer." But even though Jayanti tries to give the whole enterprise a calm, classy veneer, there's always a degree of fannish devotion -- a wide-eyed "This is Phil F-ing Spector we're talking about!" breathlessness -- at work. The film isn't intended to be a thorough overview of Spector's life: Although it includes clips of Ronnie Spector singing, along with the Ronettes, one of Spector's greatest songs (and one of the greatest in all of 20th century pop music) "Be My Baby," it doesn't mention that Ronnie was Spector's wife for more than 10 years. And during the course of the loopy and seemingly endless interviews Jayanti conducted with Spector (these were taped during Spector's first trial, which ended in a mistrial), the producer makes a few passing references to his son, Philip, who died of leukemia at age 9 -- the child's death is never mentioned directly. Those aren't necessarily flaws, but they reinforce the notion that this movie is for the initiated only, for those who are already steeped in Spector lore and who are curious -- morbidly or otherwise -- to find out exactly how much of a weirdo he really is.

The answer is unsurprising but also unspeakably sad in its obviousness: Spector's weirdness is pretty much off the charts, and Jayanti's approach confirms our worst hunches while failing to illuminate any of the more intricate nooks and crannies of this brilliant, troubled soul. Spector counters Jayanti's questions (his queries are presented off-screen, though we occasionally hear his voice) with responses that are at times almost endearingly insecure and at other times -- there's no nicer way to put it -- just plain crazy.

When quizzed about the electrocharged Buckwheat hairdo he sported at a 2003 court appearance, Spector defensively quips that he was channeling Albert Einstein, Beethoven and Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons. He says that in real life, his coif didn't look quite so bushy. "That day -- it got a little extreme," he concedes. When he talks about his life's disappointments, he says, with a faint pout, that he's never gotten an honorary degree from a college, as Bob Dylan and Bill Cosby have. Even Buddy Holly -- who, he notes, was only on the rock'n'roll scene for three years of his life -- has a postage stamp.

There's nothing nuts about nursing a bruised ego that way, particularly considering that Spector grew up in a lower-middle-class Bronx family who would have seen a college degree, even an honorary one, as a major achievement. But Spector's biggest bête noire is, it turns out, the seemingly benign Tony Bennett -- the singer's name comes up at least five times in the film, mostly because Spector sees him as a figure who, unlike himself, is consistently viewed positively in the press.

It probably helps that Bennett has never faced a murder charge, but never mind. During Jayanti's questioning, Spector is always reasonably polite, and he looks fairly normal albeit in an eccentric, rock-genius way: His outfits include a series of groovily tailored suits worn with open shirt collars, often accented with elaborate jewelry and silk pocket squares. His hair, most likely a toupee, is fashioned into an only slightly puffy Paul Williams-style bowl cut, a vast improvement on the Brillo pad look.

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