Never before have I seen a film so betrayed by its trailer as Phil Spector. The HBO original movie seemed at first preview an over-the-top Al Pacino misfire – he’s well capable of not just chewing but chomping on the scenery, brilliant actor though he may be at his best – that reduces the vividly eccentric genius titan of pop single perfection from the 1960s and its bizarre late-in-life chapter of his murder trial to caricature.
I should have trusted more with the gifted and über-capable David Mamet as writer and director. As a film, it is powerful, gripping and emotionally stirring if not disconcerting. Pacino's performance as Spector is far more nuanced than the promos portray, showing a man haunted by his past and fame, frightened and confused by the murder charges, yet at the same time emotionally sensitive and reflective.
In the end, it's less about Spector's first of two trials for murder than it is, in a strange way, a love story between Pacino's Spector and Helen Mirren – in an equally assured dramatic take – as his defense lawyer Linda Kenney Baden. That dimension only underscores the impression in the film that there is more than reasonable doubt that Spector shot and killed actress Lana Clarkson in 2003.
But then there's the big rub: It is labeled at its start as a work of fiction. And that is certainly what the movie is, well beyond the usual "based on a true story."
And as a result, it only serves to gin up more of the controversy that surrounds Clarkson's death and the trials plus Spector's conviction for second degree murder. And muddy the already vast gray area between myth and reality (as well as Spector's own self-mythologizing) about this popular music icon.
Which is a shame, as a more accurate depiction just may have helped humanize the legendary record producer, whether he's guilty in fact beyond the verdict or not, as the fictional story does. Plus the one essential element that any reasonable doubt hinges on, the blood splatter evidence, is conflated so far beyond that facts in the movie that any questions raised by the film become moot in light of reality.
So in the end, as good a movie as it may be in cinematic and dramatic terms, "Phil Spector" exists in a strange netherworld even as it became a quite controversial media event. It did impel me to look into the forensic evidence that in large part led to a hung jury in the first trial, and at least consider reasonable doubt regarding the second trial's guilty verdict, which at the time seemed like justice served.
We'll never know what really happened that night of Feb. 3 some 10 years ago. (Ironically, that date of that month is also the same as "the day the music died" in Don McLean's song "American Pie," when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper died in a plane crash in 1959). And Spector as well as Clarkson will remain in the grip of the "Rashomon" effect in which subjective viewpoints yield widely varying versions of the same story.
Oddly, such disparity over Spector and Clarkson's death personally surround me. A dear female friend from my New York years who I briefly dated also dated Spector. She said he was nothing but a gentleman and was heartbroken over what happened. So is a musician friend who lived in the apartment next door to me for a while in the Big Apple. He and his wife lived in Los Angeles and were good friends with Clarkson. Naturally, they regard Spector as despicable.
And of course, whatever one feels about the incident, it sullies the massive achievements of Spector's creations and his all but incalculable contributions to popular music. So even if Phil Spector is fiction and a worthy film that's fascinating to watch, his career and Clarkson's death are so interwoven into popular culture that as good a movie as it may be, I can't help but wonder if it even should have been made.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2013
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