A review of a documentary on the life and trials of Phil Spector, as posted to The Toronto Film Scene.

Originally published on The Toronto Film Scene – January 25, 2011.

I’m going to preface this review by saying that I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for his achievements as a songwriter and producer.

He tells the tale of John Lennon once saying he “kept rock and roll alive while Elvis was in the army” and he’s probably right.   If there’s anyone that wants to argue that Spector is anything other than a genius, I defy them to cue The Beatles’ “Let it Be” up to the 1:45 mark.

That said: Phil Spector is an asshole.

This fact comes through pretty spectacularly in The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector , opening at Bell Lightbox Jan. 27.

The film, as a historical document and reflection on the life and career of one of rock’s true visionaries is astounding. It’s full of the kinds of factoids and stories that music fans know and love ““ like him infamously shortchanging “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by a minute on its original label because he knew radio wouldn’t play a song over four minutes ““ alongside some rare archival footage, like the Righteous Brothers in probably the poorest-shot TV appearance of all-time.

The film goes into great depths, exploring Spector’s contributions to music history with acts like The Beatles, Tina Turner and more, as told – very boastfully – by the man himself.

See, the hook – the zeitgeist-catching angle to this documentary – is supposed to be the fact that the interview that runs throughout the film and seems to be the very reason for the doc was shot while Spector was standing trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson.

Filmmaker Vikram Jayanti did a nice job of juxtaposing the sinister situation in which Spector found himself with the indelible and joyous effect his music had on the evolution of pop culture as we know it.

In many senses that alone should account for the agony and the ecstasy of the situation right?   You have a man that in his early 20s created a trademark that still is still baffling and beautiful to the ear 40 years on whose life spun so far out of control that when he finally sits down to talk about it all is facing the distinct possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.

But somewhere in between those two periods – and somewhere in between the archival footage of Ike and Tina’s stunning stage show and the footage of Spector’s first murder trial ““ lies a fact that goes pretty much overlooked by Jayanti and, consequently, pretty much unaddressed by Spector himself. That’s the fact that if he didn’t murder Clarkson (and a jury would eventually determine that he did), he was definitely in the room.

Spector isn’t really asked about his role in the murder. He’s not asked about remorse or his history of allegedly threatening women with firearms. And, he’s not really asked to explain how he thought he went from being a musical legend to a murder suspect.

Therein lies the failing of this documentary.

It’s great to have access to Spector at such a volatile time in his life, but to waste it by almost exclusively talking about the events that made him a legend and ignoring the whole “potential murderer” thing is a severely missed opportunity.

What the film does achieve, to a point, is framing the more sinister angles of his musical canon against the person he’d later become. It’s an important stepping-stone in the evolution of Phil Spector, the man, to point to the misogyny and cynicism of Phil Spector, the artist. It’s easy to see a potential murderer in the man at the wheel of The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (and it Felt Like a Kiss)” or the man who was the co-conspirator to John Lennon’s proclamation in “God” that “the dream is over”.

But Spector is rarely asked to address that side of himself.

Instead he’s tossed softballs like whether it was hard to juggle producing that record for Lennon while, at the same time, running through “My Sweet Lord” with George Harrison.

And then there’s Spector himself:

Phil Spector compares himself to Galileo and Da Vinci.

Phil Spector calls “Good Vibrations” an “edit record” and claims that just about anyone could have made it.

Phil Spector takes credit for the careers of Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel because he didn’t pull the plug on Mean Streets and its uncommissioned use of “Be My Baby”

Phil Spector wonders why Tony Bennett got off scot-free for a long-time cocaine problem to become a beacon to the golden age while he’s facing the consequences of his own actions.

Oh yeah, and, Phil Spector is now a convicted murderer.

But amidst all this, is it fair to call the man an asshole?

I mean, he does have a fairly substantial soapbox to preach from, and his talent for creating “three minute symphonies for the kids” is undeniable.   So surely we can overlook personal shortcomings and let his musical achievements speak for themselves.

But that’s just the issue. You get a little ecstasy in the form of the music that defined a generation and a lot of the agony in the personage of Spector himself.  And what’s worse is that you think he’d want to tone it down a bit in light of supremely bad press.

But, Spector sums it up best in his own words.

Jayanti asks him about Paul McCartney’s dissatisfaction with his production of “Let it Be”.

Spector’s response?

“He’s got me confused with someone who gives a shit.”