The spine of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, a 2007 interview with the legendary pop-music producer as he stood trial for murder in the death of actress Lana Clarkson, exposes the subject’s overweening ego, long-held personal grudges, and monumental paranoia. For those who take his subsequent conviction (in a second trial) at face value, Spector plausibly fills the role of a malignant, possibly deranged creep: With his rheumy eyes and unflattering bowl cut, and decked out in a garish red shirt and striped suit, he needs only to declare, steeped in 50 years of bitterness, that the high schoolers who ostracized him are “all nothing, they’re all typical” to seemingly complete a damning case study before the lens.
Ultimately, the challenge for Vikram Jayanti’s documentary is to comment seriously on the dissonance between great art and a damaged, possibly homicidal man who forged it. Conducted in the impresario’s L.A. mansion (a few yards from the piano on which he recorded John Lennon’s “Imagine”), Jayanti’s dialogue with his subject falls well short of interrogation, ignoring topics like Spector’s apparent mania for guns; it does prompt a singular oral autobiography of an epochal pop maestro, whose “little symphonies for the kids” are readily compared by Spector himself to the works of Bach and Leonardo—adding with a half-smile, “he said, modestly.” By juxtaposing reminiscences and archival clips of the producer’s 1958-72 prime with on-screen critical text by rock journalist Mick Brown, which strives to be a sort of artistic psychohistory, and footage of the onetime chart wunderkind squirming in the courtroom, The Agony and the Ecstasy has in its sights an understanding of Spector, if not an interest in arguing his guilt or innocence in Clarkson’s death. It wants to reconcile his “wall of sound” genius with his dark, violent urges, and despite Brown’s contention that they “stem from the same source,” the film falls short here, more often luxuriating in its interviewee’s venom and self-regard.
The still-thrilling sounds of those ’60s records by the Ronettes and the Crystals, along with those girl groups’ appearances on jukebox TV shows of the era in front of squealing, hand-jiving teen audiences, are augmented by Spector’s verbal salvos. Until he worked with Ike and Tina Turner, he maintains, he was frustrated that “every artist I recorded couldn’t do shit on stage.” The Beach Boys’s landmark “Good Vibrations,” he huffs, “is an edit record.” He still is upset (somewhat reasonably) by Martin Scorsese’s unauthorized appropriation of “Be My Baby” for Mean Streets. Denying a reputation for being difficult, he points out that he’s been a loner, with bodyguards, since his teens (“I’m unapproachable, so how can I be difficult?”).
Jayanti’s needle-drops on Spector’s greatest hits make their share of ironic points from the first scene’s use of “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” but as the trial’s closing arguments deal with stark forensic evidence of blood spattering and bullet trajectory, the defendant’s intercut account of how he alchemized the Beatles’s jumbled studio tapes into Let It Be is simply overwhelmed, and rendered irrelevant by the context. (Inclusion of an underwhelming Clarkson audition reel, meant to recast the struggling actress as a comedian, is perhaps a nastier misstep.) Spector at last seems like a more haunted, dangerous brother to his collaborator Lennon. Speaking of his lack of surprise at John’s murder, Phil neutrally asserts that given the Beatle’s iconic status and lack of security, “It only takes a moment…It happens.”