Friday, July 02, 2010

Phil Spector unplugged- The Agony and Ecstacy

By now, Phil Spector's known as much for his erratic behavior as he is for his place in rock and roll history. Not that his reputation ain't warranted or the fact that he's now serving jail time for a murder isn't exactly gonna dispel that rep.

If you buy into the theory that madness and genius go hand in hand sometimes or that the insane behavior of an artist doesn't necessarily detract from their art, you might actually be sympathetic to Spector and have an interest in Vikram Jayanti's 2008 documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (first aired on BBC2 and now making the rounds in theaters).

In it, we mostly see Spector in two places. First, he's doing a rare interview in his large L.A. mansion (pictured above) in 2003 or he's in court for the first murder trial he faced at time for the shooting and murder of actress Lana Clarkson. These scenes are interspersed with music and videos of famous sessions he produced. The captions that go along with the songs are pretty distracting and annoying, piling on hyperbole about them and trying to tie in Spector's demons into the songs.

The courtroom scenes show Spector as a frail old man, hands shaking as he silently sits and listens to the prosecutor and his defense lawyer retrace the incidents that led up to Clarkson's death and the evidence surrounding it. These scenes are tilted in Spector's favor as expert witnesses explain that the angle that the gun was used made it difficult or unlikely for Spector to fire the gun and kill Clarkson and the resulting splatter of flesh/bone/tissue didn't show up on Spector's shirt as it should have if he fired the gun up close. They also have witnesses who portray Clarkson as a 40-year-old depressed actress who was going nowhere and upset about it, maybe to the point that she'd take her own life as she came back from a club with Spector to his house. But we also see glimpses of guilt in the form of ex-girlfriends who briefly testify in the film sequences that Spector had put guns to their heads at one point or another. Plus, there's the damning testimony from Spector's chauffeur that after the gun went off, Spector wandered outside holding it, saying "I think I killed somebody." What doesn't come up in the film, but surely came up in the trail, are recording sessions where Spector supposedly brandished a gun and threatening John Lennon and/or the Ramones. In any case, the 2007 case resulted in a mistrial but a retrial in 2008 resulted in his conviction last year and a 19-year jail sentence.

The mansion scenes are much more interesting and revealing, not to mention equally disturbing in places. Here, Spector talks about his career up to the early 70's (nothing about the records he did with Leonard Cohen, the Ramones, Dion, Yoko or Starsailor). Up close, we see his face and the effects of Botox injections, leaving him with a wide-eyed look all of the time, and sporting a blonde mop-top haircut, as opposed to the crazy frizzed hairdo that ran in every newspaper and which he now regrets (claiming that he was mimicking Detroit Piston's Ben Wallace for the hairstyle as well as Albert Einstein).

He also talks of a lonely childhood where he was constantly picked on and only got relief where he found football players on his high school to protect him, in exchange for him helping them with their homework. In essence, he admits that he's always been surrounded by bodyguards and prefers to be a private person.

The B&W clips we see of his performers are a treat and credit the film for showing them in extended sequences and not just a few seconds of each. We even see a video for his first hit, as a member of the Teddy Bears for the sweet, sublime 1958 ballad "To Know Him Is to Love Him" (named after the epitaph for his father). Here we see a young fresh-faced Spector playing guitar and singing back-up as he now admits was his plan all along- he didn't want to be the star per se but the guy behind the scenes pulling the strings. In another memorable sequence, we hear the audio of his solo demo for "Spanish Harlem," with him accompanying himself on guitar. His voice sounds gorgeous and it obviously provided the guide for Ben E. King and the hit he had with it. We also see the Crystals and the Ronettes on teen pop shows doing "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Be My Baby" with go-go dancers wildly shaking it in the background and girls in the audience screaming in delight (as they would with the Beatles).

But as beautiful and transcendent as those songs were, something was missing for Spector. He claimed that the bands couldn't perform as well on stage as they could in the studio (even then, he sometimes had to use other sings to sub). As such, he says that he had been looking for Tina Turner, someone who could make good in the studio AND the stage) for years. When they finally got to work with together in 1966, Spector thought he was going to have his greatest triumph and even had the Beatles telling him that he had a major hit on his hands. But as monumental a song as "River Deep, Mountain High" is, it wasn't a hit, not in the U.S. anyway. Spector was mad and even took out multiple ads in U.S. trade mags, chiding them that it was a UK #1 hit and that "Benedict Arnold was right"! Thinking back on it, he understands that it was a stupid move and that it also helped kill the record's chances in the States (years later, Johnny Cash did a similar move by taking out trade mag ads with him flipping them off). It also meant the end of his golden years as a hot-shot producer as he soon went into retirement after that.

In the film, the Beatles connection makes for some interesting stories too. For one thing, you're reminded that he was the one who produced their last album as well as the early post-Fabs records for Lennon and Harrison. For Let It Be, he recounts how he was brought in to sort through the mess of the early '69 sessions which the band couldn't cobble together into an album. As Lennon would later say, Spector did the best he could with the wobbly material- Spector in particular recounts that on "The Long and Winding Road," McCartney's vocals were shaky, Lennon's bass playing was a bad joke, he later had to drag Ringo back into the studio to add drum parts and then put in the orchestra and choir parts to beef it up. Even though he hired an arranger that McCartney recommended, Macca was furious at the end result, years later helping to birth the raw version of the album as Let It Be... Naked in 2003 (which Spector is dismissive of). One thing you have to wonder is that if the original sessions were meant for the Fabs to 'get back' to their raw roots, why would they hire an extravagant producer like Spector to work over the tapes and NOT expect him to goose them up?

Also fascinating to hear about are the sessions that he did with Lennon and Harrison in the early '70's. Being interviewed in front of 'the piano' (the one that Lennon used for "Imagine" and which Spector produced), Spector get quizzed about working on a heretical song like Lennon's "God" around the same time that he did "My Sweet Lord" with Harrison. Spector shrugs it off as just part of his job, claiming that he's a bit of a chameleon, which is interesting to hear from a guy with such a distinct sound, at least with his '60's recordings. Lennon's Plastic Ono Band was another attempt to get down and dirty and that he did, without any strings or choruses this time, but with a spare setting instead.

From that album, the psychodrama of "Mother" is heard as an overlay to one of the 2007 courtroom scenes, meant for context not just with Spector's work but also his background. Spector's father committed suicide with a gunshot when the boy was only 9 years old, after which the family moved from New York to L.A.. The song captions and the interview sequences show us that he was scared by the incident and in some ways, still carries that along with him.

In addition, though he claims that he's not bitter, Spector keeps railing against other stars that’ve gotten the accolades that he thinks he deserves too. Tony Bennett in particular keeps cropping up as Spector rails about what a coke-head he was in the '60's and how he was later embraced by MTV and a new generation. He demands to know why does Bennett get seen as a hero or Dylan gets a doctorate while he doesn't. Clearly, his wounds over his father aren't the only ones he carries around with him. Also, when he speaks of his justly famous 60's Wall of Sounds productions, he keeps using the word 'art,' maintaining (rightly so, I think) that he helped push rock in that direction. The comparison he keeps coming up with for his work are the Renaissance masters, which even he jokingly notes ain't too immodest of him to say.

In the end, what you're left with is what you'd expect- a portrait of a troubled genius. But here you see him up close, literally and figuratively, as he's rarely been seen. The interviews were done about a month before the 2007 trial and he even jokes that he'll be someone's girlfriend in prison if he's convicted. His ego, his pride, his wounds (his paranoia which is only hinted at here) are all part and parcel of who he is along with being one of the greatest producers that rock will ever see. Even with all of his casual breast-beating, you do get some feel of not only his amazing artistry but also the vulnerability that he works hard to keep from public view. Most likely, unless his lawyers find a way to get him paroled, he'll spend the rest of his life in prison (as he notes that Galileo did too). How he'll hold up there without his bodyguards or a studio at his disposal is anyone's guess.


Blogger Unknown said...

I was impressed with this documentary. Admittedly, the elegiac subtitles were distracting, annoying, and added nothing to the film. I also found the lack of physical evidence to convict Spector pretty compelling. It changed my opinion about his guilt. He does seem narcissistic and paranoid, but is he guilty of murder? I'm not convinced anymore. Undoubtedly, he contributed greatly to American popular music.

8:04 PM  

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