Celebrity trainwrecks have become so commonplace you could say they’re now America’s leading spectator sport. Witness the deer-in-headlights fascination with which we’ve watched Mel, Lindsay and Britney implode while issues of actual societal import occupy ever smaller media space.
It wasn't always so. Not long ago “paparazzi” actually dwelt in Italy. Our general press corps wasn’t nearly so invasive, and employers (movie studios, record companies) protected stars from scandal unless they behaved so impossibly they were no longer an asset.
Toss in an array of newish technologies plus the reality-TV-bred thirst to gain and maintain public attention at whatever cost (even when it makes you look like an ass), and it’s a brave new world we live in. One where privacy and discretion are values rapidly curdling toward their expiration dates.
Of course not everybody desires the precise circumstances of their public meltdown, even if they revel in the attention brings. Case in point: The subject of Vikram Jayanti’s BBC documentary The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector, which opens at the Roxie Theater this Friday. Famous (and famously eccentric) music producer Spector was accused of murder when struggling actress Lana Clarkson was found shot to death in his Los Angeles home on February 3, 2003.
Bosomy blonde Clarkson enjoyed some 1980s success, but at 40 was “aging out” of the fickle industry’s casting pool, accumulating serious troubles with depression, addiction and financial desperation. Spector claimed she’d committed suicide in front of him, at an 8-foot distance, with one of his own (many) guns. Indeed the white suit he was purportedly wearing showed no blood/cartilage spatter fitting the murder scenario.
Yet Spector had a known history of violence against women—several ex-girlfriends testified he’d held them at gunpoint—and moments after the shot was heard, he had allegedly told his chauffeur “I think I killed someone.”
The Agony and Ecstasy isn’t a lurid tabloid expose but a cool customer that lets its bizarre central personality do the talking. Given that rope, he arguably hangs himself.
Jayanti deftly cuts between several basic elements. Primary is Spector’s initial 2007 murder trial (there was a non-televised one in 2009). That courtroom footage is kept mostly on “mute,” soundtracked by highlights from the famed “Wall of Sound” producer’s many Top 40 hits, which get deconstructed by rock critic Mick Brown in CD liner note–style subtitles.
Those songs limn Spector’s arc from bullied teenage runt to number one songwriter (and performer as part of trio the Teddy Bears) on 1958’s “To Know Him Is To Love Him” —a slow-dance swoon few grasped, but which paid tribute to the father who’d killed himself when Phil was a tot. He then got Svengali-esque for a series of classic “girl group” singles like the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”
Spector isn’t humble about those achievements, or anything else. He proudly asserts the Righteous Brothers’ smash 1965 “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” isn’t just the greatest rock ‘n’ roll record, but maybe the best piece of recorded music ever. “River Deep, Mountain High,” '66 zenith of his attempts to create “little symphonies for kids” uniting spectacular black female vocalist (here Tina Turner) with simple melody elevated to grandiose production heights, flopped on the U.S. charts but topped the U.K. ones. In response he took out bitter full-page ads saying “Benedict Arnold was right” (to betray Yanks to the Brits).
He “retired” then—at 26—only to come back as controversial overseer of the quarreling Beatles’ last studio album Let It Be (1970), and producer on several subsequent solo projects by John Lennon and George Harrison.
In Jayanti’s interview footage—which entirely skirts asking Phil about personal matters, let alone Lana Clarkson—we see a 60-something has-been insulated by wealth and residual fame, clinging to youthful hairdos that now mark him as a weirdo. (No matter that he claims their intent is humorous.) He’s even-tempered and articulate. Yet the content of his chatter is frequently disturbing, even delusional.
Because “Be My Baby” was used without permission in the opening sequence of 1973 film Mean Streets, Spector considers himself the generous benefactor to whom director Scorsese and star De Niro owe their entire careers. He compares his public martyring to Galileo’s; the impact and import of his artistry to da Vinci, Modigliani, and Michelangelo. He’s got persecution complexes toward cops, court, music industry, erstwhile schoolmates, fellow celebrities and (of course) the media.
He’s always the victim, in his own mind at least. Letting him speak for himself, this documentary can’t note that Spector went through several trial attorney teams. Or that he’d informed a U.K. rag just before Clarkson’s death he was bipolar and “relatively insane.” Or that a serious 1974 car accident accelerated his professional withdrawal. Less understandably omitted here are his later, sparse significant collaborations with such improbable compadres as Leonard Cohen, the Ramones, Yoko Ono and Starsailor.
Well-named, Jayanti’s doc conveys both the agony of a tormented creator and the ecstasy his creations induced (as illustrated by glorious vintage TV and concert footage). It’s a hypnotic on at least two levels: As nostalgic audiovisual revel, and as closeup gander at an over-the-top personality with serious personality problems.
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