“I’m dealing in rock ‘n’ roll. I’m, like, I’m not a bona fide human being.” — Phil Spector
One of the features of pop music is its immediacy — something one can feel without intellectualizing a response. Another, at least at its inception, is its disposability. Yet, by identifying, isolating, and creating trends, movements, moments in time and infusing them with meaning, pop music provides anthems that accompany our ascent from the uncertainties of adolescence into adulthood.
Vikram Jayanti’s documentary The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector examines pop music and the man who singlehandedly, if Spector is to be believed, raised the detritus of pop confection into the realm of art. Spector is revered for creating his Wall of Sound, his “little symphonies for kids.”1 Spector wasn’t, however, just a music producer. He was a performer, songwriter, sound engineer, and tastemaker, a man with a sixth sense about what radio deejays would play and the record buying public would consume. As a result, he grew rich and powerful — the “first tycoon of teen” in Tom Wolfe’s famous words — and his pop songs, whether one connects to the genre or not, are unforgettable. But for those who only know Spector from his silent appearance (he didn’t testify in his own defense) on Court TV for the 2003 shooting death of Lana Clarkson, Jayanti’s documentary is a revelation. With his shaking hands, red-rimmed and glassy eyes, and Edwardian outfits and blond pageboy wig, Spector here looks no less strange than he did on TV. But the celebrity interview that anchors The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector gives him a platform — and Spector, who’s been spectral for decades, makes the most of it.
Living in baronial splendor in his Alhambra, California, castle and surrounded by enough high-end bric-a-brac to efface his Bronx origins, Spector is a piece of work. A born storyteller, he’s funny and smart, narcissistic and megalomaniacal (he compares himself to Bach, Beethoven, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Einstein). He also exemplifies how the bullied and maladjusted can use their rage to not only make their way in the world, but to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, except their own. As he says in the film, “Hurt precedes art and adoration.”
Few doubt Spector’s genius, and his 1989 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame officially acknowledges it. But he’s got an attitude and won’t share credit with anyone — not the composers of those catchy tunes, not the performers who brought the songs to life, not the studio musicians who were the brick and mortar of his Wall of Sound. In The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector he takes cheap shots at Buddy Holly, for dying in a plane crash after only three years in rock; Bob Dylan, for being unintelligible and underproduced; and Paul McCartney, for releasing an un-Phil Spectorized version of Let It Be (goodbye portentous strings), the Beatles’ final LP. But his bête noire is, of all people, Tony Bennett, whose embrace by MTV he considers the travesty to beat all travesties. Go figure. Spector even takes credit for the careers of Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Harvey Keitel, because Mean Streets opened with Spector’s “Be My Baby,” without prior approval, attribution, or litigation.
Spector is the only person interviewed in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, so there are no competing narratives, no other points of view, no setting the record the straight. The documentary is The World According to Phil Spector, a world where self-mythologizing replaces self-analysis, where fact and fantasy coalesce. The documentary succeeds less as conventional biography than as a sonic portrait framed by Spector’s string of number one hits: “Be My Baby,” “He’s a Rebel,” “Spanish Harlem, ” “Da Do Ron Ron,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and “River Deep, Mountain High.” These classic pop songs are seamlessly interwoven with excerpts from Spector’s first trial (which unlike the second trial ended in a hung jury), so teenage angst becomes the soundtrack to a legal spectacle.
But when the music dies, it’s gunplay, alas, for which Spector is now best known. He was a control freak, and when he didn’t get his way, with musicians in the studio,2 women in his castle, or valets in restaurant parking lots, Spector would pull out a gun. Guns gave the five-foot-seven Spector presence, stature, a chance to indulge in macho swagger. It let everyone know who was in charge. Had he not shot Lana Clarkson, accidentally, on purpose, or accidentally on purpose, The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector would not have been made. Spector was a giant, but he was yesterday’s giant. No one much cared or thought about Phil Spector. But a bullet catapulted him into the tabloids — if it bleeds, it leads — and suddenly he was news. In Jayanti’s documentary, Spector takes a raconteur’s delight in retelling his favorite tales, and performances by Tina Turner, the Righteous Brothers, and the Ronettes are nothing less than the top of the pops. But for all that, the documentary can be hard to watch. Spector says he’s not like O. J. or Robert Blake. He’s right in terms of the size of his cultural footprint. He’s also right in that Simpson and Blake, unlike Spector, were acquitted.
Spector was a prisoner in his own life, an odd bird in a gilded cage, a casualty of fate and questionable judgment. He kept women like Ronnie Spector prisoner in his mansions and castle, against their will and often at gunpoint. And now he’s in the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran, serving nineteen to life for murder in the second degree. Maybe justice, however poetic, has been served.
- Spector described his productions as “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for kids.” Richard Williams: Phil Spector: Out of His Head (Omnibus Press, London, 2003), 53. [↩]
- In 1974 Spector pulled two guns on Stevie Wonder at the Record Plant in LA because Wonder was using an engineer Spector wanted. Richard Williams: Phil Spector: Out of His Head (Omnibus Press, London, 2003), 170. Spector put a gun to Leonard Cohen’s neck in 1977 and said, “Leonard, I love you,” to which Cohen replied, “I hope you do, Phil.” Mick Brown, Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007), 303. Two years later, Spector pulled a gun on Dee Dee Ramone, bassist of the Ramones. Dee Dee Ramone, Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones (Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 2000), 131. [↩]