The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector Vikram Jayanti
Published Jan 27, 2011There's a moment in this film where Phil Spector discusses John Lennon's assassin, but he could be describing himself: a madman who is so "out of it" that he callously takes another life. It's a chilling moment uttered by a deranged man who's now serving hard time for killing B-movie actress Lana Clarkson in his secluded L.A. mansion in 2003.
Spector, of course, is the legendary record producer who built the "wall of sound," constructing Wagnerian pop symphonies for the Righteous Brothers ("You've Lost That Loving Feeling"), Tina Turner ("River Deep, Mountain High"), the Ronettes ("Be My Baby") and ex-Beatles John and George. Spector is also famous for his guns and violent paranoia.
Already broadcast in Britain, Jayanti's documentary relies on a lengthy 2007 interview with Spector, shot during the year of his first trial. This access is unprecedented, since Spector is a notorious recluse. He's candid, narcissistic, sometimes funny, but often creepy. Jayanti has also found amazing vintage TV footage from all of Spector's key artists.
But Jayanti tells Spector's life story only from Spector's point of view. There's no word from the prosecuting or defending attorneys and nothing from Ronnie Spector, his ex-wife, who was virtually imprisoned for years out of jealousy – more background about his family, where depression and inbreeding reigned, would've helped. There's also nothing from any of the musicians he recorded, like the fractious 1977 sessions with Leonard Cohen, which yielded the appalling Death of a Ladies Man, or the Ramones in 1980, when Spector allegedly pulled a gun on them to add strings to a song.
Jayanti wanted it this way, but without other voices to challenge Spector and offer different facets of his complex personality, his film is too sympathetic to Spector and too critical of Clarkson: a struggling actress, yes, but a suicidal failure? Another fault is the written commentary about Spector's songs that flash on screen over the trial footage. When you read them in Mick Brown's superb book, Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, they make sense, but here they distract.
That said, Vikram's film is worth seeing because of the Spector interview. His recollections about his art, his collaborators and himself are revelatory, though should be taken with a grain of salt. This footage will most likely serve as Spector's last testament.
How did the interview come about?
Vikram Jayanti: I think of it as a conversation; I don't have a list of questions. I don't have a plan. I just hang out. We had been hanging out for a month before I brought the camera in. I had a feel for him and he had a feel for me. It came about because I did the unthinkable. Everyone said, "You'll never get to Phil Spector." I just sent him a letter, to the address I found on the Court TV website, with my partner from BBC Arena, the arts channel, on BBC letterhead. A day-and-a-half later, I got an email from Phil saying, "Come over to the castle. Let's talk." I think he did it – my guess is – because the BBC is the world's ministry of culture. And I've made films about geniuses in trouble.
To secure his interview and music, did you have to strike an agreement with him? For instance, could Spector reject any footage used in the film?
No. We were working on the standard BBC terms: you don't pay somebody for being in the film; you don't give them editorial approval. He volunteered that we could have all the music for free; it turned out very well. The only thing I promised him, which was my idea, was I wanted to stop the film in the middle and play the whole of "River Deep, Mountain High" to enjoy the song. When I was working on the film afterwards, I realized I needed to play all the songs in full, because if you're going to comprehend what he does as a producer, you want to hear the songs the way he intended them, which is from start to finish.
You chose to tell his story through his eyes. Why didn't you interview others, including Ronnie Spector, the prosecuting or defence attorneys, Tina Turner or family members of other musicians he recorded?
I decided from the very moment I conceived the film that if I talk to Phil, I wouldn't talk to anybody else. I figure the prosecution in the trial would cover all the bad stuff about him. I didn't want a bunch of people giving their opinions about Phil's legacy or telling anecdotes, because I didn't want to do an ordinary documentary. I was trying to find out what it felt like to be Phil. I'll just have Phil talking. I'll just have the music. I'll just have the trial. I'll just have Mick Brown's critical analysis of the songs. If I layer them the right way, I'll get something complex and interesting. I didn't want a succession of talking heads. We know what the talking heads would say, but no one knew what Phil would say.
Contrast your opinion of Spector, before and after you spoke to him.
I went in expecting a crazy guy. I was kind of nervous; I never studied him. I had his greatest hits record that I bought in 1971. I heard the same rumour everyone else heard: that a woman died in his house. Like everyone else, I thought, "Oh, yeah, it's a matter of time." What surprised me was how lucid and funny he could be, and what a great storyteller he was. The depth of his musical knowledge was a given, but he's also kind of charismatic. At the same time, during a conversation, he's also madder than a bug. He matches every fantastically lucid moment with something outrageous. I love the complexity of it.
What do you think of him now: a tragic figure or some sort of monster?
I like to do portraits of monsters, then find my way into their humanity: by the end of the film, he's humanized. He's not excused from killing the woman; I hope that's one of the film's achievements. I feel this terrible tragedy of a kid who was damaged so young and struggled with that damage his whole life. He's chosen ways to intensify the damage by hurting people around him. I think John Lennon is his good twin running throughout the movie. Lennon took the same amount of childhood trauma and anguish and tried to free himself. Phil remained captive to the anguish and the pain. The Wall of Sound is like a wall around that pain; I hear in the music darkness and pain I didn't hear before I did the film. John Lennon was trying to work through it and people loved him through that. I think a lot of people hate Phil for the way he's processed his damage; he's done it in such an anti-social way.
That's a very interesting contrast between Lennon and Spector.
Phil has on the wall Lennon's favourite guitar that Yoko sent him after Lennon was killed.
There's that scene where Spector talks about Lennon's assassination; it was very chilling. I had the feeling he was talking about himself.
I agree; I found it chilling. I find that the echoes are there. You can't find the logic there, because you think of Lana dying, but when he talks about someone being unbalanced and you're away of how troubled Lana Clarkson's life was... There's something going on there that I find very chilling. When "Imagine" starts playing, I feel like crying.
Is the film too sympathetic towards Spector?
It's compassionate, but lays out all his ugliness, as well as his better qualities. You look at his eye – women friends can't bear to look at that single eye of his weeping – and listening to his narcissism, you see all the negative physically in front of you. I did edit it to reflect my sense of the first trial's outcome, the hung jury that I attended. They did not prove the science. They were basing it all on women who said he used guns on them and the chauffeur saying that Phil said he shot somebody. Whereas the defence was saying, "Where's the blood splatter? Where's the science?" There is a reasonable doubt. At the same time, I'm much more concerned with finding out who Phil Spector is and in the process, humanizing him and surprising people by making them think he's not such a monster anymore. So, yeah, the film is sympathetic to that, but I think it's more about finding out who he is.
How will the world remember Phil Spector after he's gone?
If he has any chance of being remembered as something other than a whack job who did well in the music scene, but ended up in jail for murder, I think my film is probably the best shot he's got at having the canon of his musical legacy remembered. The music will always play.
I think this film will be his last official testament.
I try to do that with my films: the last word. (BBC Arena)