The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Phil Spector
Northwest Film Forum
running now through Thursday, December 9
“I would try to tell all the groups we’re doing something very important. They didn’t know they were producing art that would change the world. I know.”
“I have devils inside that fight me, and my own worst enemy.”
Both of these quotes above begin The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Phil Spector (USA/UK, 2009, 102 min), which was directed by Vikram Jayanti (When We Were Kings and Born Into Brothels) for the BBC. Jayanti has made a documentary may gives the audience oodles of agony and dashes of ecstasy. If you are a typically conflicted fan who adores Spector’s transcendent, soul-spanning musical productions from his awe-inspiring late 50s Teddy Bears hit “To Know Him Is To Love Him” (which he played guitar on, in a clip from television) through his illuminations recording some of John Lennon’s darkest autobiographical work (“Mother”), you’ll want to see this. Unfortunately, afterward, due to his ticks, vigilant glowers, and raging hubris, you may never want to see another filmed moment of Spector again. Even if you find yourself reaching for his legendary 4-LP box set, or those Crystals, Ronettes, and Righeous Brothers LPs and collections.
The movie begins with Spector being interviewed about a month before his April 2007 trial for murdering a sweet, struggling actress he’d picked up at the House of Blues in 2003. Lana Clarkson had been in Amazon Women on the Moon, did a lot of charity work, and probably wasn’t “kissing the gun” Spector used to blow her brains out. Jayanti flips back and forth between this conversation in which he seems to have Spector’s complete trust, or maybe the legendary producer is just able to talk shit about Tony Bennett’s coke habit, Bill Cosby’s honorary diplomas, how he should be worshiped “like (Irving) Berlin or (George Gershwin),” and that source of all his unhappiness stems from the death of his father when he was a toddler. The almost stinging-sweet “To Know Him Is To Love Him” becomes a praise song when you know this, a sweeping love song beamed to a paternal figure who was absent and who he deeply yearned for the presence of. It’s a dedication turned into a lamentation turned into a hymn. You may never forget hearing it when it was freshly written and performed, before Spector started forming up various girl groups and bands to continue his mission of bringing operatic-pop to the universe.
Spector claims the pain and abandonment he felt went into everything he created. Left pining for his dad when he was five, to later avoid bullying, he tutored (but probably just did the homework for) jocks in a “snobby, middle class” high school of Philistines. He would eventually “make himself popular” by learning to play guitar and performing. It’s this need to create art to be accepted, and then to loathe the presence of others who might judge it, that drove him to eventually create subversive masterpieces like “Da Doo Ron Ron” — which means pretty much “to do it,” and not about “when he walked me home,” the line he used to get it on the radio.
In more uncomfortably funny scenes filmed with a guitar near a huge pool table in 1977, he is both mocking people for making fun of him being “so lonely in this big old mansion,” but also admitting, “Loneliness is a state of mind.” This is just one example of the incredibly revealing self-delusion he wallows in which we get to too throughout The Agony And The Ecstasy. No one this talented should be this insecure; no one this insecure should be this powerful; there’s always an excuse for doing just what he wants to do to the powerless used as pawns in the game; that game may have been creative and profitable at one time, but the ego has become far too infected to be useful or convey the human joy and spiritual truths it once did. The truth is, he claimed, Spector just never felt liked. He couldn’t get away with being different (and occasionally he’d rather use the word “better”), so he had to prove he was the best and still punish those around him for needing him. And of course, he’d rather be “left alone.” Poke at the world, and use those around you (bodyguards) to keep it from poking back. Nothing wrong with that, right?
Spector loathes those who compete with him, because that seems to be the natural course for someone who needs to convince himself incessantly that he’s the best. Brian Wilson can “smoke thousands of joints” to try to recreate the “Wall of Sound” — which was layers and layers of live-played, Mono-recorded goodness Spector invented and worked on in the studio till songs bubbled into Wagnerian accomplishments. But he won’t get it, because “Good Vibrations” is an “edits” song. It’s an edit of this and an edit of that, pieced together, not like the organic perfectionism based in a fully done take and woven with other realized efforts. (Phony attempts at the Wall of Sound dominate the airwaves today, with button pushers compressing sound into infinity but rarely touching the heart.) I am almost just there agreeing with Spector, till I realize, hey, “Good Vibrations” is just fine. Also, he analyzes Hitchcock and compares Psycho to Rebecca but only to denigrate the former as an “edits film,” and how superior the latter movie is. Who knows? Maybe he’s right. I think more people have heard of Psycho but Spector probably wouldn’t be too pleased if you used “more people on your side” as a gauge in which to judge art.
And that is where we’re at with Phil Spector: We can enjoy his fruits, but if in his madness he decides to put one of his many guns in our mouth and pull the trigger, who are we to mind? He claims Lennon once said that he “kept rock and roll alive for two and a half years after Elvis went into the Army,” before The Beatles rose up to prominence. Keeping rock alive at the cost to many abused and one murdered woman, and to Spector himself. I recommend this film, as it truly gets under the skin of Faust, the restless, wounded spirit of progress and dominance, in all its out-of-date disco pinstripes and Heath Ledger-as-Joker like glares and blurts. I could have used some more information about Spector’s work with The Ramones and Leonard Cohen too, but those could be whole documentaries all on their own. After Spector dies probably, when the musicians and associates left alive might feel safe enough to talk about it.