“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector”

Last night, the American Cinematheque screened the BBC documentary “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector.” One of Phil’s sons, Louis, was there. So, according to the L.A. Cinematheque hostess, were some attorneys and at least one police detective. It was opening a week’s run at the Egyptian Theater; maybe a couple hundred people were there.

Also present was the director, Vikram Jayanti, who sat for a long q&a after the screening.

Shooting for the BBC, Javanti had one day’s interview with Phil at the Castle. A fair amount of that was injected between lots of trial footage (only the defense was actually heard, though the prosecution’s case was made clear), and a lot of performance clips, most of ’em from TV shows.

To tell you the truth, I came in expecting the worse, and (despite some reservations about the way the film was assembled), felt it to be pretty fair. Phil was “on” during the interview: funny, perceptive, and telling good stories. In other words: while you’re never going to get the whole picture in such a brief time, I recognized the Phil Spector I have come to know and like over the past few years.

I also felt the defense’s case (incompletely shown here, of course) to be pretty convincing, even if the only “evidence” shown was Phil’s jacket with the expert testimony that if he had shot Lana Clarkson as portrayed by the prosecution, there would be far more blood and tissue on the jacket than there was. Also shown was the testimony that gunshots in the mouth at that angle are 99% suicidal. Some indication was shown that Clarkson’s career was on the skids, and that she had, in fact, written a note that might be considered a contemplation of suicide.

Though I appreciate the work Jayanti put into the film (he was at the first trial a lot; finished the film; and then added some material after the second trial), I didn’t like him much. He allowed that he didn’t know much about Spector going in, and spent (he said) no time at all researching his subject. Phil made him walk up the stairway to the Castle, as he had made me do the first several times; I liked that he didn’t let the filmmaker and his crew go further up the driveway, to a parking area (shown often during the course of the trial; you may remember the water fountain that may or may not have been very loud) where there are no stairs.

The thing I disliked most about the film, oddly, was that Jayanti had a guy, Mick Brown, “analyze” many of the songs, in little subtitles under the film. Later, he said that by overlaying trial footage, Spector records, and those analytical titles, he was trying to create a “wall of film.” I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it — and that’s not even getting into whether I agree with the guy’s analysis or Jayanti’s opening the film with “He Hit Me (and it Felt Like a Kiss.” As Jayanti explained in the question period that he felt that many of the songs indicated Spector’s dark state of mind. Then, in virtually the same breath, he accused Spector of not acknowledging his co-writers!

Actually, as I was watching the film, it was Jayanti who failed to mention the names of Spector’s collaborators — Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, often; Jerry Leiber on “Spanish Harlem” Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” — and never quite gets around to explaining what a “record producer” does, in any event. One of the real highlights for me was hearing Spector’s own voice-and-guitar demo of “Spanish Harlem.”

There has been a certain amount of press relative to this film, stating that Spector is dismissive of other artists; I didn’t see that, at least no more than they deserved. Does Tony Bennett admit to have doing a lot of cocaine in the years before his comeback? I haven’t heard that, but I haven’t heard Bennett deny it, either. Were the Crystals, Ronettes, and others poor live acts? Well, compared with the Ike & Tina Revue (as he does), who’s going to argue that?

Does he compare himself to Beethoven and Galileo? Yes, but listen to his reasoning and it makes more sense than being just a simple burst of ego. Does he complain about never receiving an honorary doctorate? He does, but he’s clearly unaware of (or, more likely, declines to acknowledge) the politics involved. And he may or may not know that nobody can be portrayed on a U.S. postage stamp until 10 years after their death.

And he does discuss his hair, and the bodyguards.

Louis Spector, in the q&a period, commended Jayanti on the film. I’m not so sure, but it’s certainly well worth seeing. Even if you remain unconvinced of Spector’s innocence, you’ll begin to understand why he’s such a fascinating person. (For my own feelings about Spector’s guilt or innocence, here’s an earlier blog entry),

Tonight (Friday), the film will be introduced by Carol Connors (the Teddy Bear, not the porn actress. I think). Probably wouldn’t have been my first choice.

(Here is an interview with the director.)