Produced for the BBC, the documentary The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Phil Spector builds on an exclusive interview with Spector during his first trial—the one that resulted in a hung jury—for the shooting death of Lana Clarkson. Not surprisingly, Spector argues for his innocence and complains in a half-paranoid/half-legitimate fashion about the unfairness of public perception. (Regarding that infamous photograph of Spector donning an electro-shocked ’fro, he claims it was a misconstrued tribute to Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace. No, really.) But mostly, Spector (and the movie) make a case for his legacy as one of the great musical geniuses of our time, the mastermind behind the multi-layered “wall of sound” that elevated the role of a producer in studio recordings—in his case, above the artists themselves.
Though there’s a point where Spector’s claims cross into pure, comical bluster—he compares himself not only to George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, but to Michelangelo and Galileo—The Agony And The Ecstasy provides a sympathetic ear, or at least an open forum. And it’s a smart strategy: Spector gives good quote, buttressing a detailed history of his adventures in the music industry with grandiose stories about the behind-the-scenes drama on The Beatles’ Let It Be and how he once held Martin Scorsese’s (and by extension, Robert De Niro’s) career in his hands. While there’s no denying the brilliance of his recordings, including The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron,” The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and Ike & Tina Turner’s magnificent “River Deep, Mountain High,” it’s also rooted in a dark place.
Director Vikram Jayanti attempts to honor Spector’s revolutionary sound by doing some layering of his own, like playing full Spector-produced tracks over static courtroom shots while running Mick Brown’s critiques of each song in subtitled text. It’s gimmickry of a sort that nearly ruined Jayanti’s otherwise gripping 2003 documentary Game Over: Kasparov And The Machine, but the sheer force of Spector’s personality and work far exceeds any clumsiness in illustrating them. Currently serving out a sentence that will likely consume the remainder of his life, Spector turns the interview into a trial on his own terms—one that’s gripping, revelatory, and a little self-incriminating.