Whether a work of art should be viewed solely on its own merits or in the context of the artist and his life, has always been a contentious and unresolved talking point. But with Vikram Jayanti’s The Agony And The Ecstasy of Phil Spector, there’s a whole lot of both perspectives, and more.
Nearly replicating the famed creative genius, producer and imprisoned felon’s flamboyant collage memorialized in the annals of song as Spector’s Wall Of Sound, Jayanti mixes metaphors, music and murder trials, while managing a distinct neutrality as to Spector’s actual guilt or innocence. And though human beings rarely designate themselves as villains in their own life story to begin with, the more ethereal primary obsessions of this creatively driven recluse and self-described pariah celebrity, are more the focus of this impressionistic noirish documentary anyway.
Filmed between the elderly Spector’s original 2007 mistrial in the handgun murder of forty year old actress Lana Clarkson at his Alhambra mansion and a second trial when he was convicted and imprisoned on a 19 years to life sentence, the documentary is less about factual challenges than emotions and personality. Which primarily revolves around the logistical choice to allow the film’s real life protagonist unfettered self-expression, while tempered with the agony of the public accusations against him juxtaposed strangely with his personal ecstasy of now legendary musical creations. From rock ‘n roll classics that include the 1965 hit You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, produced and co-written by Spector and listed by BMI as the song with the most U.S. airplay in the 20th century, to work with the majority of prominent artists back then, and compositions like Let It Be and Imagine for the Beatles.
Sitting beside the white piano where he worked with John Lennon on Imagine, Spector rants against a jury he claims ‘all voted for Bush’ and viewed him as either guilty or insane, while intimating that he can’t get a fair trial because of his outcast status within the music industry. But it’s far more astonishing to learn that his first release, To Know Him Is To Love Him, wasn’t a love song at all, and rather a tribute to his late father who blew his own brains out when Spector was just a boy, a song title taken from the inscription which appears on the elder’s tombstone. And a trauma early in his life which may have inspired not only his often mournful and emotionally needy lyrics, but his reported fixation with guns and lovers, and related abandonment issues. And though asserting a powerful identification with creative genius martyrs in history including Galileo, Bach, Michelangelo and Da Vinci, and more recently Woody Allen, he oddly bypasses mention of the more timely case of Roman Polanski.
And whether sitting in court with extravagantly wigged head bowed like a kid berated for being caught stuffing his hand in a cookie jar, or rambling on back home with wild eyed tales, Spector comes across as an immature child stuck long ago in traumatized arrested development (not to mention deeply retro, frozen in time favored mod attire) who doesn’t seem to understand the consequences of his acts, and at the same time a conversely wrinkled old gnome. Though his facial deterioration (and coverup crazy wigs), is reportedly the result of horrific injuries in a nearly fatal car crash in 1974, which required scores of disfiguring stitches to his head.
The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Phil Spector (a play on words of the Michelangelo book and screen bios), however worshipfully one-sided or on the other hand legally scornful, is without a doubt a musical treasure trove of the withdrawn eccentric’s immense, innovative creative outpouring. And a landmark documentary chronicling the breadth and depth of popular music in the 20th century.
BBC/Arena/ VIXPIX Films