'The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector': If you love pop music, you must see this movie

phil-spectorImage Credit: Splash NewsWhen 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.

phil-spector-studioImage Credit: Ray Avery/Getty ImagesHe’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.

phil-spector-hairImage Credit: Damian Dovarganes/APThe 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.

Comments (28 total) Add your comment
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  • Mark

    Can’t wait to see it!

  • lucitude

    when and where can it be watched?

  • larkwoodgirl

    Wow! This is a beautifully written article. I don’t really care that much for the subject, but man I loved the writing.

    • Ian

      100% agree

    • Carla

      Excellent writing on what I must admit is a fascinating subject to me. Can’t wait to see this doc.

  • redvector

    Spector’s defense was stupid. A depressed woman’s not going to blow her brains out in the foyer of a stranger’s house. Please, she’d do in the privacy of her own house.

    • NightAngel

      Agreed. They said she was found with her purse on her shoulder and every woman knows if you have your purse on your shoulder, you are looking for the door.

    • John

      No, that’s not true. Many forms of psychopathology that include suicidal intent are also characterized by loss of self-control and an increase in impulsive behavior. Lana seems to have shown that that night by going home with (let’s be fair) a rather creepy old man; that’s impulsive. It’s not hard for a clinical psychologist to see how she could have on impulse, in the presence of a gun, had the suicidal thought, and with no impulse control, then gone ahead and shot herself. In case you don’t know, the mere presence of guns and weapons in an environment increase people’s thoughts of violence, even self-directed ones.

      • francina

        I’m a clinical psychologist. Your observations have no merit.

      • francina

        I’m a clinical psychologist. Your observations are silly.

  • Ray

    Phil Spector must have gotten over the whole Scorsese/Be My Baby thing as GoodFellas is littered with Spector songs. Most notably, the use of “Then He Kissed Me” for the 3 minute unbroken shot with Henry and Karen walking through the kitchen into the nightclub.

  • arnie

    A friend worked with Spector prior to him becoming a
    genius and he related stories of how nuts Spector was .
    This was circa 1960.

  • Clio

    I’d been meaning to see this—for NYers, it’s at Film Forum—but this post is well beyond just “see the film.” What a wonderful essay. Thank you Owen, for writing it.

  • Tommy

    In the book “Please Kill Me” by Legs McNeil, members of The Ramones (particularly Dee Dee) talk about Spector threatening them with a gun during the recording of their “End of the Century” album. That was 1980. I don’t think too many people that knew Spector were surprised that he was accused of a gun crime.

  • couchgrouch

    Owen, just from the passion in your article I’d have to say you appreciate Spector’s music more than most movies you review. one of the best things I’ve ever seen associated with Entertainment Weekly.

  • Ceballos

    I agree with others about how terrific this article is.

    Slightly off-topic. Is the Movie Critics blog officially a Lisa Schwarzbaum-free zone? I see she hasn’t posted anything in nearly two months.

    Don’t get me wrong. As a passionate movie nerd, I enjoy reading Owen’s extended riffs on new and older movies (even if I don’t always agree with them), but I always think it’s interesting to have more than one voice out there. So I was just wondering.

    Once again though…great work on this post.

    • Ceballos

      The day after I make my comment, Schwarzbaum posts her first item in months.

      Coincidence?! (Almost definitely yes.)

  • Adrian Zolkover

    In your interesting article you state you don’t buy the theory of how Lana died as presented in the film. I don’t know what theory of Lana’s death you do buy. I haven’t seen the film. I watched the trial closely from what was available mostly over the internet. 1) I found in early police reports when they arrived at Phil’s house that the chauffer Sousa could barely speak English, and could barely be understood. I wonder how, from inside a car many feet away from the front door where he said Phil (drunk) spoke to him, and next to a running fountain, he could even understand what Phil might have been mumbling. 2) Sousa was an illegal alien and I think the only reason he would have been allowed to stay in the U.S. was that he was a witness for the prosecution. 3) Also the record states that Phil went to the front door and told the police that they had to come in and see this; that it was the worst thing he had ever seen. 4) Also, Phil had world experts who wrote the textbooks for forensic education. The L.A. County witness on spatter had never even had one intra-oral gunshot wound. There was no exit wound and the spatter exited her mouth. Bullets shoot with tremendous force that propels them many city blocks. Phil’s experts testified that spatter could have reached the ceiling; her teeth landed way over on the stairway. 5) And why would the prosecution complain when Lana’s torn off fingernail was missing? It was evidently forced off by the gun movement when she pulled the trigger. She had experience with guns in films she had made. 6) Also, to me the most convincing is that the only spatter they could find on Phil was a few specks visible only with a microscope on the underside of one jacket sleeve, as though he was shielding his forehead, from many feet away, when he saw her with the gun. 7) Also, Phil’s father committed suicide when Phil was 8 or 9 years old. I think a twist on his pulling the gun and pointing at several females he was dating (never into their mouths and never pulling the trigger) was that he might have been psychologically screaming at them to be glad they are alive, to be glad he is not pulling the trigger. If he did that to me, I would have, for everyone’s safety including Phil’s, made a legal complaint at that time to stop that behavior. But I don’t buy it that what he did means he did pull the trigger on Lana. 8) I read that the famous Phil had been beaten up by thugs and this may be why this short thin man felt a need to have guns around his house, and why he acted tough. 9) I think most influential and crucial determinants of Phil’s behavior are his tremendous musical talents and accomplishments. I don’t think murder fits his way of behaving. 10) In the trial Lana’s best friends stated she was horribly depressed and wanted “to end it all”. Her show business career was failing her. They found no illegal substances in Phil’s blood, but Lana had an addict’s amount of illegal drugs in her system. From testimony it appears Lana was likely a narcotics addict and also an alcoholic. 11) She was a gorgeous healthy looking about 6 feet tall female, Phil not in good health about 5’1″ and weighed about 100 lbs. at the time this occurred.
    I’m very sorry this happened to Lana. I think she was a beautiful and talented person. There is testimony I have not read. But from what I observed, it seems the evidence makes it almost impossible that Phil pulled the trigger. And unless Phil was drunk out of his mind, I think Phil would not have wanted to and would not have murdered Lana.

    • shellibelli

      I dont care if you write another 500 word post the Man is guilty.

      She was sitting in a formal uncomfortable chair (i seen the death photos)with ehr shoes still on, purse on her shoulder ready to leave,

      Specter has long been considered offf his nut and dangerous. Ronnie Specter claimed thathe beat her and threatened to kill her. Im ashamed thats he testified for him at the trial.

      He has been known as a loose cannon and always carried a gun and threatened various artists over the years. He was a crazy bully.

      who knows what lana said or did to earn her a shot in the mouth. He didnt need to be on drugs to do what he did.

      • Adrian Zolkover

        Shellibelli I think in spite of much evidence that adds up to me that excludes Spector as the possible shooter, you are EVER DENSE to ignore this evidence. If he did threaten so many people that way, which I think is very bad behavior, they should have taken legal action to stop this behavior or not seen him any more.

  • markus

    I was shocked at how Ronnie Spector ran to his defense during the trial, saying he wasn’t capable of murder. After reading her book, the abuse, how he kept her a prisoner in his mansion, played with guns and made repeated death threats against her, this didnt seem THAT farfetched…

    good article…I’m looking forward to seeing the documentary.

  • Damian

    Saw this at Film Forum yesterday. Very compelling movie. After watching the movie, I know one thing: I can’t listen to “To Know Him Is To Love Him” the same way anymore. Shattering.
    Good article, Owen.

  • American Cinematheque

    This is a great article! The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is currently playing in New York at Film Forum and will come to LA August 19 to the Egyptian Theatre, with Sept. dates in San Francisco and one night engagements in a few other theatres. To learn more look for the film on Facebook under its title. All the theatrical screenings will be posted for there.

  • Wordpress Themes

    Good dispatch and this fill someone in on helped me alot in my college assignement. Say thank you you for your information.

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