When John Waters, in a classic aphorism, said that “everyone looks better under arrest,” he was talking about the scurrilous ’70s — the age of Charles Manson and Patty Hearst and Jim Jones — but the words apply perfectly to our era (think Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Martha Stewart, Mel Gibson), and I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen as riveting an example of the principle as what’s on display in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector. For much of this electrifying, one-of-a-kind, crime-meets-beauty-meets-tragedy documentary (it was made for the BBC, and directed by Vikram Jayanti), we watch as Phil Spector, the legendarily romantic and inspired, famously eccentric and reclusive record producer of the ’60s and early ’70s, sits in his Los Angeles mansion and talks about his life, his music, his vendettas, his delusions (or maybe just convictions) of grandeur, and his arrest for the crime of murder after Lana Clarkson, a grade-B starlet he picked up in a bar, was killed in his home in the early hours of Feb. 3, 2003, by a gunshot to the mouth.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector was filmed in 2007, during the first Spector murder trial, when Spector, then 67 (he was born the day after Christmas in 1939), was operating out of the smug belief that he would get off. He did, sort of (the trial ended in a hung jury), but during a follow-up trial he was convicted; he is now serving a 19-year sentence for second-degree murder. The Spector we see in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a small, wizened man in a honey-blond bowl-cut wig (he long ago ditched the wiry Jewfro, though he talks about that famous image, too), with big glistening elfin eyes and a mouth that curls into a smirk of delight. At first glance, he looks ridiculous, like an old man still pretending to be a kid, but what hooks you, in the most surprising way, is his voice. It’s thick, gurgly, and almost babyish, making him sound like a straight Truman Capote. That voice, like Capote’s, is full of the wily music, the outrageous charisma of self-justification.
Spector appears to be a hundred percent on the level when he compares himself to Galileo and Bach, putting his oversize ego on display, saying that he’s the one — the one! — who turned American pop music into an art form. He’s a little dictator still settling scores, whether with Martin Scorsese, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, or his nemesis Tony Bennett (a name that comes up so often it turns into a hilarious motif). As the interview goes on, though, what emerges is the flip side of Spector’s megalomania: his loneliness, his compulsive feelings of failure, his cosmic insecurity. He’s like Napoleon with borderline personality disorder, and it’s that troubled, self-loathing side of Spector, coupled with his musical genius, that is mesmerizing to behold. Throughout the movie, he proclaims himself innocent of murder, but even if he’s not, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector shows you how Spector’s grandeur as an artist emerged from an inner ache that he could never transcend — an ache that dragged him over to the dark side.
He’s got terrific stories, like the one about why his fabled recording sessions were so long (he had to layer the Wall of Sound just so, which meant that no one could come in and touch the console dials). Or about how radical it was when, on impulse, he changed the title of “When He Walked Me Home” to its nonsense refrain, “Da Doo Ron Ron,” thus putting the song’s inner erotic joy right on the surface. Or about what it was like to sort through the mountain of badly recorded tapes that became Let It Be. (As someone who used to sit, spellbound, when I was 11, listening to “The Long and Winding Road,” with its angel choir, when it first came on the radio, I appreciated Spector’s defense of his sublimely lush version of it over McCartney’s latter-day objections to it). Or his sputtering resentment when he first learned that Scorsese had used the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” without securing the rights, over the opening credits of Mean Streets. Spector was advised to just let it go, on the theory that the low-budget movie would quickly go away, and he’s certainly right about one thing: Without the glory of “Be My Baby” (arguably the single greatest use of a pop song in Hollywood history), Mean Streets wouldn’t be Mean Streets. What he leaves out, of course, is that the glory of Mean Streets only added to the luster of Phil Spector.
Spector also fills in the story of how he collaborated with Tina Turner on his last classic-period single, the volcanic “River Deep, Mountain High,” in 1966, and of how and why it failed, falling between the cracks of black and white radio, neither one of which knew what to make of it or how to program it. He reacted with utter rage, taking out ads in the music trades that condemned the American public, and retiring from the music business on the spot. No wonder it took the prospect of working with the Beatles, first as a group and then as solo artists (most spectacularly when he updated the Wall of Sound to George Harrison’s karma on All Things Must Pass), to bring Spector back. At that point, his ego was so deflated/inflated that he could only allow himself to sit at the table with pop’s undisputed geniuses.
When Scorsese chose “Be My Baby” to open Mean Streets, his signature film, he was echoing the juxtaposition of pop music and movies that Kenneth Anger had invented, 10 years earlier, in his demon/biker/queer/rock-aria masterpiece Scorpio Rising (1964). One of the most memorable sequences in Scorpio Rising makes fantastic use of a Spector song: the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel,” which Anger interweaves with shots from an old Jesus film, making the image of a “rebel” at once sacred and profane, heavenly and hellish in its Christ-as-leader-of-the-pack audacity. From Anger to Scorsese to Blue Velvet to Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, that synergy of movies and pop music has always had a special operatic power — it’s like a conduit to the unconscious — but until The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, I’d never seen that same aesthetic employed in a documentary.
The film’s director, Vikram Jayanti, keeps cutting to clips of the first Spector murder trial, which he counterpoints with some of Spector’s most famous songs — a technique that, at first, I found glib and off-putting. But then, a startling narrative begins to emerge. The movie isn’t simply a record of the trial — it’s the story of a haunting nightmare. “Da Doo Ron Ron” (with that former title line, “When he walked me home…”) is accompanied by surveillance footage of Lana Clarkson getting into Spector’s limo that fateful night; Spector sitting at the defendant’s table, shriveled and spooked, is accompanied by the Righteous Brothers singing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” a song that has never sounded so gorgeous in its desolation. By the time we get to the point where the lawyers are tracing bullet trajectories, the trial has become a ghoulish rhapsody of sin.
On the surface, the movie buys directly into Spector’s defense: that Lana Clarkson, a depressed actress past her prime, committed suicide on a kind of accidental impulse. I do not buy that theory. Yet the music that accompanies the trial tells a different story anyway. I’ve been listening to Phil Spector’s music since the ’70s (including his great Christmas album, which is always on my holiday CD pile), but until this movie, I didn’t fully grasp how much the defining characteristic of his classic songs, most of which he composed himself, isn’t just the Wall of Sound. It’s the Wall of Sadness. It’s the underlying (and overwhelming) melancholy of teen rapture that’s destined, in its pure dense satiny perfection, to be a dream of love, rather than a reality. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector pays tribute to that dream, and to the price Phil Spector made himself pay for dreaming it.