In my stack of to-dos I have a post-it note with the title The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector and for the life of me I can't remember who recommended this to me. Was it Cher scholar Dishy, JimmyDean or Robrt? Was it someone at work? Anyway, I watched it yesterday and it's a BBC documentary from 2009 which aired between Phil Spector's mistrial and his final conviction for second-degree murder (not premeditated) that same year.
To me the death of Lana Clarkson is a very complicated whodunit, a legit mystery with a dangerously broken man at its center. There seem to be facts supporting his conviction and facts supporting his innocence. I don't feel this documentary clears up the matter at all. The movie only confirms one thing, Phil Spector was looking more and more like Penny Marshall throughout his trial.
The film inter-cuts video footage from his first trial with clips of his greatest musical moments. Commentary about his oeuvre and brilliance is set as text which you try to read while court dialogue plays at the same time. It's very confusing to catch it all. But the commentary on Spector's "little symphonies for kids" is actually very good, the best part of the movie. The interviewer also handles Spector well and gets some semi-sane conversation from him, mixed with a bit of grandiosity (Spector compares himself to Da Vinci, Galileo, Gershwin, Miles Davis and Irving Berlin) and conspiracy theories (he thinks his enemies from the 1960s and 70s are involved in his latest troubles and is needlessly jealous of Bill Cosby's honorary PhD). But it's not so easy to write Spector off as a lunatic because he has completely lucid, smart and valid things to say about his career. Although he's bitter and a mess, he's right on some points.
It was weird to hear him talk about MTV because I thought he was already a shut-in by the time I was watching MTV. In fact, I was surprised to hear he had met a woman at the House of Blues. I'm too reclusive to frequent House of Blues. What the hell was Phil Spector doing there?
There are about 101 shots of Phil Spector looking like a sad sack, put upon by the system. Testimony to the power of film, this almost drew me info full sympathy with him until I reconsidered all the problems with this documentary and Spector's case:
- The film too obviously sympathized with Spector. It's in no way a balanced look at the situation. The director asked leading questions, in some cases attempting to give sympathetic answers to Spector, like providing him with a good alternative reason for wearing his hair in an afro to court appearances.
- The court footage is too highly edited to favor Spector. Court testimony supporting his innocence was given more weight and time than evidence against him: Lana Clarkson's bad, black-face audition reels are dwelt upon whereas a string of former girlfriends with their horror stories of him holding a gun to their faces or mouths were all collaged together in a sweep that implied this wasn't important testimony. Clips chosen of the prosecutor and judge made them look flippant and conspiring.
- Surely Phil Spector wasn't allowed to comment on the details of his trial but this becomes a big problem for the documentary. Spector never addresses any remorse over the fact that a woman died in his entryway. He is also unable to discusses his history of violence (which includes infamous stories of threats with guns in recording studios, in Ronnie Spector's book and from a plethora of old girlfriends testifying). He complains that if a celebrity is well-liked, the media won't talk about their dark pasts and uses William Shatner as an example, implying Shatner got away with something (the drowning of his third wife) because he's popular. Which is all very possible but that argument implies Spector is equating himself with someone (Shatner) who is getting away with some crime. Is this Spector admitting he's committed a crime? The "other celebrities get away with shit" defense if very creepy.
- There is evidence to his credit: his white coat and his body did not have any evidence of blood spatter or gun residue which should have been all over him unless he cleaned up quickly. The direction of the head wound could have been self-inflicted and Lana Clarkson was in the midst of a life crisis and hinted at being suicidal. On the other hand, after the shot was fired, the chauffeur saw Spector run out of the house, gun in hand, saying to him, "I think I killed somebody." Lana was sitting on a chair in Spector's entryway with her purse strap over her shoulder. So nothing is conclusive. On the outside, it looks like the director, Vikram Jayanti, made a judgement call based on his admiration of Spector's work (which is weaved throughout the film).
In the beginning of the movie, Spector wonders how his life would have been different had his father not committed suicide when he was 6 years old. I also wonder if Spector would have become less bitter if he had simply recorded himself instead of producing a string of other artists he didn't respect. To his credit and as the film shows, many of those artists couldn't replicate the greatness of his records in their live performances. If Spector had recorded himself and caught what he felt was the deserved credit and adulation....who knows.
Why did women keep going home with Phil Spector? Why did Phil Spector keep finding himself in dysfunctional relationships with women. Why didn't Phil Spector retire into a nice career as a music critic or as an elder statesman of music?
Be warned, there is some sad footage of Lana Clarkson taken by House of Blues surveillance, gory testimony described and her death scene photos are shown, albeit at a distance from the top of the staircase (a staircase from a grim-looking, dark and dated Phil Spector house, a death scene that looked the the entryway of doom).
It's hard to find a moral in this sad, sad story. I guess maybe the "teaching moment" would be if you have a history of playing with guns and scaring women, make sure no woman ever dies from a gunshot wound to her head in your house...like ever. Because karma will f*#k with you.
The posting I watched yesterday has already been taken down due to copyright issues, but you might find a new posting of it by searching for it on the tubes. Phil Spector has spent his time in prison appealing his conviction. His last appeal was denied in 2011.