Sunday, June 27, 2010

The man (no!) and his music (yes!): Vikram Jayanti's PHIL SPECTOR documentary

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF PHIL SPECTOR? If that title sounds a bit grandiose, wait till you get a load of the movie's subject. A couple of weeks back, in an interview by TrustMovies with French actress/writer/director Agnès Jaoui, the star talked about the depressing experience of discovering that art you love with all your soul has been created by a piece of worthless (except for some amazing talent) trash. Today's post covers just such a situation -- and movie -- about a fellow who's a great artist and a really lousy person (perhaps he should spell it Specter).

How lousy? Try this: Sticking a gun inside the mouth of your girlfriend and pulling the trigger. Mr. Spector is now in prison for that little move. On the other hand, he's got a lot to feel grandiose about, as this film makes absolutely clear by giving us many of his greatest hits, in or near their entirety. Early on, Spector excelled as songwriter and performer: "To Know Him Is to Love Him," sung by the Teddy Bears trio, of which he was a member (see above, right), and "(There Is a Rose in) Spanish Harlem," still one of the greatest of odd love songs. But it was as a music producer that the man's genius came to fruition.

Documentarian Vikram Jayanti, shown at right, has given us a mind-bending, ear-and-eye-filling movie that manages to enfold into a single entity psychology, history (complete with headline news), music criticism -- and the music itself. At one point in this documentary, Spector mentions in passing that "the Motown sound" was good, but nowhere near as good as his own. He's so right: I recently listened to an old Supremes album and was shocked to realize how simple and rather rinky-dink is the musical accompaniment to the vocals of Diana and her girls -- nothing like the rich, vibrant, soulful, swelling stuff that Spector, with the help of his artists, managed to produce again and again. In the history of American popular music, no one before or since has equaled the accomplishments of this man. Seeing and hearing the full-length version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," sung by The Righteous Brothers on an ancient television show, makes that assessment more than clear. And that one song -- great as it is -- doesn't begin to cover the Spector spectrum, the high point of which, for some (not me), will be his production of the Beatles' "Let It Be" album.

And then there's the man. During his initial trial (he had two) for the murder of Lana Clarkson, Spector gave Mr. Jayanti full access for what looks like a very long, cover-as-many-bases-as-possible interview, during which the the music promoter/producer spills his guts in ways that seem alternately crazy (was he high, perhaps?) and fox-like. His fairly consistent jabs at one, Tony Bennett, begin to approach the hilarious, and he's seems to have it in for Buddy Holly and Marty Scorsese (with some justification, where the latter is concerned), as well.

Then there's his "looks." Has any celebrity ever managed to appear this crazy this often? Probably. But seeing Mr. Spector in full array historically, including his "Jewfro" hairdo (Jayanti has gathered together a wealth of great old footage) makes it difficult to imagine anyone else outdoing him. There are times during this documentary when the man reminded me, from certain angles, of Joan Rivers -- had she never had a face-lift. Most of the time, though, he's a ringer for the recent Anna Massey.

When he relives his own "old times," Spector can seem less mean-spirited and occasionally thoughtful and fun. Hearing him talk about being on top -- "Sometimes I was so brash in those days, I could strut sitting down!" is a delight. And then he'll deliver a number like this: "My artists could easily have replaced each other because it was always the production that carried the songs."  Replaced each other? Darlene Love? Sorry, Phil, but I don't think so.

Fortunately, thanks to Jayanti's brilliant notion of juxtaposing murder trial and music (those are the Crystals, above, whom Spector made popular with "Da Doo Ron Ron"), thus combining man and art, psychology and critical assessment (which comes in the form of subtitles shown over the performance, so that no spoken words interfere with the music), we return again and again to Spector's achievements -- both brilliant and wretched. And though I walked out of the theater on air -- high on the Spector sound -- I still think Jayanti ought to dedicate this movie to Lana Clarkson. And I hope Agnès Jaoui gets to see it.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector opens this Wednesday in New York City at Film Forum. Check the schedule of performances here. I hope the plays across the country wherever popular music lovers reside -- which means just about everywhere.

Photo credits: 

Top, left: Photofest; top, right: Associated Press

The Teddy Bears (c.1958), from left to right: Marshall Leib, Carol Connors and Phil Spector, Courtesy of Photofest.

Photo of Vikram Jayanti, courtesy of

photo of Phil Spector, courtesy of VixPix Films.

photo of Phil Spector with Jew-fro, courtesy of Photofest.

the young Phil Spector (c. late 1960s/early 1970s), courtesy of Photofest.

The Crystals -- from left, Patsy Wright, Delores Kennibrew,
Lala Brooks and Barbara Alston -- (c. early 1960s),
courtesy of Photofest.

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