HBO's 'Phil Spector' is a compelling portrait of Phil Spector's dark and crazy charisma. But did he kill that girl?

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Image Credit: Philip V. Caruso/HBO

In the week leading up to tonight’s premiere of the HBO original movie Phil Spector, the pre-release publicity has all been orchestrated around quotes from the film’s writer-director, David Mamet, claiming that the movie is not a docudrama, that it parts ways with reality — and, in Mamet’s own words, that it is “not about Phil Spector.” The film opens with a title that claims: This is a work of fiction. It’s not “based on a true story.” Got it? What we’re about to watch is so made up that it’s not even related to reality. (You’ve got to love those sarcastic quote marks. Very David Mamet dyspeptic.)

Though it seems likely that Mamet, with the presumed endorsement of HBO, was basically launching a pre-emptive strike at everyone from libel lawyers to critics of the movie who might be tempted to pounce on it for being inaccurate, I have to say that the effect of all this “It’s not about Phil Spector!” squawking was to dampen my original enthusiasm for seeing the film. I began to worry that Mamet would take the fascinating tale of Spector and his 2007 trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson, the troubled starlet who died of a gunshot wound to the mouth in Spector’s house on Feb. 3, 2003, and twist it into some heavily stylized, dead-zone Mamet rant-meditation on men, women, celebrity, media, and other Boring Important Topics.

Well, forget all that. Phil Spector, it turns out, really is about Phil Spector, and not some made-up Mamet version of him. It’s an impeccably researched and finely detailed movie that’s true to Spector’s history, his music, his demons, his yearnings, his vendettas, his deeply disturbed relationship with women, and also to the deep-dish yet bizarrely compelling and even cuddly megalomania that was on full, riveting display in the extraordinary 2009 documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, which Mamet obviously studied and drew from. The way that Al Pacino plays Spector, with a gawky, fulminating eloquence and eyes that bug out with inner pain, with his longing to be understood, he’s a loony and obsessive yet brilliant man who lost his place in the world and whose “conversation” is now basically a monologue devoted to explaining and justifying what a grand, eternal figure he is. There’s not even the hint of a borderline to his personality disorder. He’s all manic, jabbering id, a molten mass of raging insecurity and tyrannical ego (flip sides of the same coin), a messed-up musical genius who now views himself as a pop Napoleon.

In Phil Spector, the trick of Spector’s paranoid megalomania is this: When he talks about his achievements, how he was the most successful record producer who ever lived, or how his placement of black singers within the wall of sound broke the color barrier in America, or how “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” is the greatest pop single ever recorded…well, you listen to this self-justifying litany of achievement, and on some level it’s inflated out of all proportion, and in another way it’s hard to disagree with any of it. Phil Spector’s music, his sound, the melancholy majesty of his romanticism, did change the world, and still haunts it. When he retired and began to fade away, all because in 1966 he was stung to the core by the commercial failure of “River Deep, Mountain High,” it was literally a fall from grace. That’s what a religiously sublime Top 40 artist he was.

Of course, he was also a violent, screw-loose geek who, despite his achievements, could never believe in himself. Famously, he brought guns into the recording studio and fired them (Mamet stages a flashback to one such moment quite convincingly), and he played out a ritualized cycle of adulation and rejection with the women in his life. No matter how devoted they were, he could never finally accept it, and so he came to regard each of them as a betrayer who had to be forced into loving him. (The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector captures how Spector created a vision of love in his hit singles that was so rapturously, almost tormentedly idealized that there was no way his life could ever live up to it.) A certain glibly blatant phallic gun symbolism is built into the story of Phil Spector. He was a sawed-off little dictator who sought power and validity through firearms. By the time that Lana Clarkson was killed at 5:00 a.m. in his Los Angeles “castle,” after a drunken date, there had been many tales of the women Spector had terrorized with guns, sometimes putting the weapons in their mouths. It seemed obvious, to a lot of people, that this time he had finally gone too far.

But did he? The reason that all of Mamet’s It’s not a true story! dissembling is annoying baloney is that a major aspect of why we want to watch Phil Spector is to see, and to take seriously, the film’s vision of whether or not he was guilty of murder. Mamet opens the film resonantly, with a calm, distant black-and-white shot, scored to “Unchained Melody,” of Spector and then Clarkson leaving a cocktail lounge and getting into his car. But he never actually shows us what happened back at Spector’s castle. Instead, he presents the items of evidence that came to define the trial, and they play around in your head like pieces of a conspiracy-theory puzzle. Shortly after the shooting, Spector’s chauffeur told the police that Spector had come out of the house and said: “I think I killed somebody.” That’s Exhibit A. Exhibit B is Spector’s white jacket, which he was wearing when the shooting occurred. But there was a mininum of blood spatter on the jacket (it was almost invisible) — or on Spector himself. If he had pulled the trigger, standing right next to Clarkson, it seems more than likely that that wouldn’t have been the case.

Mamet weaves these and other pieces of information, including cannily staged videotaped interviews of Spector at various points in his life (Pacino makes him different at every age), into a terse, dense legal-investigative dialogue. The back-and-forth wrangling is led by Spector’s principal attorney, Linda Kenney Baden, played by Helen Mirren in the most convincing job I’ve seen of her portraying a no-nonsense American. Linda is hired by Spector’s original high-priced celebrity lawyer, Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor), and then takes over the case even though she’s fighting pneumonia. She starts off thinking he’s guilty, but her pursuit of a reasonable doubt quickly leads her to the opposite conclusion. The ballistics and forsenics don’t truly add up. But then nothing does. Mamet delays Spector’s first entrance, employing a fine dramatic build-up to the moment when Linda wanders through the castle, with its stuffed owls, gothic decor, and incongruous Spector memorabilia, and it’s like Norman Bates’ house crossed with Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu. At last, from the shadows emerges the host, a small, shuffling man wearing a porridgy bowl-cut wig that’s one of the dozen he’ll sport in the movie. (Part of his lunacy is that he won’t admit they’re wigs; it hurts him that people think they are.) Pacino doesn’t really try for Spector’s voice — which, by this point in his life, was a slightly gurgly babyish sing-song. But he inflects his own famously gravelly, Loud Voice Al instrument with a lighter urgency than we’re used to. He makes Spector a compellingly sympathetic monster of ego — Richard III in hippie shades and fake curls.

Even Spector’s defense of himself is a kind of conspiracy theory: In his mind, he’s still the king of pop, and there are so many who are jealous of him that they had to bring him down. This is on some level obviously paranoid nonsense, but at the same time, when you begin to consider the mythic level of Spector’s celebrity and his reputation for bizarre gun-waving episodes, there’s a way in which many of us saw him as guilty until proven innocent. The scenario that Mamet offers is what might be called revisionist history, but it’s one that has always struck me as a likely possibility: the theory that Lana Clarkson’s death wasn’t a suicide — which is what Spector first claimed — but a horrible accident. She had placed the gun in her mouth (or maybe he did), and when she pulled it out, she accidentally pulled the trigger (which, as Linda logistically demonstrates, is easy to do).

The verdict of Phil Spector, in the end, is inconclusive-bordering-on-finding-Spector-innocent, and some will doubtlessly be outraged by that. (The trial the film is about ended in a mistrial. He was ultimately convicted, in a followup trial, of second-degree murder, for which he’s now serving 19 years in prison.) But this was a case in which the facts never spoke all that conclusively. And so I respect the intelligent ambiguity of Mamet’s version. He has long been a skillful filmmaker, and his work in Phil Spector is tense and fluid. It’s also very funny at times, as when Spector, in the middle of rehearsing the appearance that Linda was planning for him to make on the witness stand, erupts into a tantrum, and Linda, calming him down, tells him to keep his composure the way he did when he worked with the Beatles. She asks, “If Paul disagreed with you, did you scream at him?” And the endlessly self-justifying Spector, his life hanging in the balance, can’t miss the opportunity to noodge, “On Let It Be? I was proved right!” (He’s talking about his lavish orchestration of “The Long and Winding Road,” which Paul hated, and which Spector — yes — was right about.) I’d say that Phil Spector is, on balance, an even more compelling HBO movie than Pacino’s pretty good 2010 Kevorkian drama You Don’t Know Jack. And it contains just enough moments of Spector’s music — though it could have used more of them — to heighten the poignance of who he was and who he became: the artist as spellbinding wreck, his soul hollowed out by the vanity that he consumed like toxic candy. Pacino gives Spector a wacked sense of his own tragedy, a vivid feeling of loss. Because he, more than anyone, hasn’t forgotten what he put into that music. It’s the soundtrack of his pop-martyr complex.

Does Phil Spector take liberties, condense characters, and imagine conversations that it wasn’t there for? Of course it does. That’s what all dramatizations of the lives of famous people do. But the real obligation of a movie like this one is to use reality, and even the places that it wanders off from it, to conjure the essence of the man. And that, I would argue, Phil Spector does compellingly well. At the climax of the movie, when Spector shows up in court on the day that he’s set to testify, wearing that frizzy Afro wig that made him look certifiable, Linda decides, based on the hair alone, that she can’t put him on the witness stand. Is that the way it really happened? Maybe not. But it’s a perfect metaphor, in a way, for what did happen: Phil Spector insisted on parading himself as the kook he was, and that’s at least a part of what did him in. He’d lost that loving feeling way too long ago.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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