The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector Is a Rock Opera Full of Murder and Ego

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, which screens at O Cinema, lives up to its grandiose title, taken from the old Michelangelo potboiler. Vikram Jayanti's BBC production is certainly a scoop, culled from 50 hours of interviews made during the reclusive Spector's first trial--he was accused of sticking one of his many guns in actress Lana Clarkson's mouth and blowing out her brains--but it's less a documentary than a Top 40 opera.

The Agony begins with Spector bitching about the jury ("45 percent of them wrote down they believed I was guilty and 20 percent of them wrote down I was insane" and all of them voted for Bush) and the judge (not fair that he keeps reminding the court that somebody died). Then Jayanti segues--bang!--to a vintage kinescope of the Ronettes performing songwriter Spector's infectiously plaintive "Be My Baby." Pure ecstasy! And so it goes for the next 100 minutes, as Spector's discourse and observations of his courtroom demeanor are interwoven with his greatest hits, often played in their glorious entirety. We (and he?) watch the trial with "He's a Rebel" pounding in our brains.

By his own account a friendless, bullied child, further traumatized by

his father's suicide, Spector recorded his first pop song in 1958 at age

18, using the inscription on Benjamin Spector's gravestone: "To Know

Him Is to Love Him." The record went to No. 1; hit followed hit as

Spector created the Crystals and the Ronettes, while developing the

sonic full-court press known as the Wall of Sound. Midway through The

Agony and the Ecstasy comes the Righteous Brothers' full

four-and-a-half-minute performance of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'."

Spector didn't invent adolescent emo, but he dignified it with

Wagnerian pow. ("Some people consider it the greatest song ever made,"

he modestly allows.)

Tom Wolfe celebrated Spector's emergence with a

1964 New York Herald Tribune feature, "The First Tycoon of Teen." A few

years later, Spector retired in a fit of pique--outraged by the failure

of his massively overproduced Ike and Tina Turner single "River Deep,

Mountain High." (When the song went to No. 1 in England, he took out an

ad in the trades: "Benedict Arnold Was Right!") Thereafter, he made

occasional comebacks--creating the Beatles' last album, Let It Be, from

hours of rehearsal tapes and producing several of John Lennon's

subsequent singles--while growing ever weirder. Jayanti uses Lennon's

"Crippled Inside" to meditate on the spectacle of Spector's involuntary


By that point in the movie, Spector's feelings of abandonment

and isolation have been pretty well established--and also, thanks to

annotations supplied by his biographer, Mick Brown, identified in his

music. One is not exactly prepared for his intermittent charm.

Round-faced and wide-eyed, snugly fitted with a bowl-cut blond wig and

ever eager to vent, Spector has the look of the imp off a Rice Krispies

box. "I was so brazen, I could strut sitting down," he tells Jayanti by

way of explaining how he came to name the 1963 hit "Da Doo Ron Ron."

"I'd like to have a nickel for every joint [Brian Wilson] smoked trying

to figure out how I got the 'Be My Baby' sound."

Yet rage is constant

and grudges boundless (Tony Bennett seems to be a particular bête

noire). Spector's paranoia (persecuted because he created the '60s) is

indistinguishable from his self-importance. He takes credit for the

careers of both Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, having magnanimously

decided not to enjoin Mean Streets for its unauthorized use of "Be My

Baby." (Jayanti misses a chance to cite the song's more recent

appearance in a Cialis ad.) Repeatedly, Spector compares himself to

Leonardo da Vinci and, explaining how he came to invent his sound,

allows that he "felt the same need Galileo did"--namely, to reorient the


Spector is a notorious credit hog--and Jayanti proves to be

something of an enabler. There's plenty that's excluded. The songwriters

Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who co-wrote many Spector hits, are

never mentioned; nor is Spector's second wife, Ronettes lead singer

Ronnie Bennett. His children are barely alluded to, and his current

(fourth) wife is invisible. Inevitably, however, the star is forced to

share the stage with a 40-year-old unemployed actress, Lana Clarkson--not

that he has anything to say about her.

At first, the dead woman is made

manifest in extensive forensic evidence; later, she's characterized by

the defense's contention that she was so depressed she committed suicide

with Spector's gun. Finally she speaks for herself in a clip film,

re-edited by Jayanti to focus on her grotesque impersonation of Little

Richard. (In Spector's mind, this is something that might, in itself,

constitute a capital crime.)

Clarkson's desire for stardom is again

thwarted, but Spector's solipsism is breached, not just by her

inconvenient death in his living room but also by the continuing power

of his music to stir the masses. The artist refers to his early-'60s

hits as "little symphonies for the kids"--hardly an exaggeration. To have

been in junior high school when rhapsodic fugues of yearning like

"Spanish Harlem," "Uptown," or "Be My Baby" first poured from the radio

is to have a sensibility, if not a fantasy life, in some way molded by

this monster of self-absorption; to see The Agony and the Ecstasy is to

be haunted by the specter of that long-ago innocence.

--J. Hoberman

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