If Phil Spector can be trusted (and that’s neither here nor there), then John Lennon is responsible for saving the film careers of both Martin Scorsese and Robert Deniro. An anecdote about halfway through The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector relates Spector’s reaction to Scorsese’s feature debut, Mean Streets. As anyone familiar with that movie knows, the opening scene, the one where Harvey Keitel wakes up to start his eventually horrible day, unfolds against the sound of “Be My Baby,” an iconic pop jam that Spector produced for the Ronettes in 1963. Well, when Phil heard about the film and its unlicensed use of his tune, his first reaction was to sue the pants off Scorsese, pull the film from theaters, bankrupt him, and ruin any chance he had of making another film, which in turn would probably have ruined Deniro’s budding career as an actor. It just so happens that during the summer of 1973, Spector was working with John Lennon, and according to Phil, John talked him out of obliterating the young New York auteur. So, of course, Spector, in a baller leisure suit complete with a deep-red silk shirt, proceeds to take credit for everything Scorsese’s ever done.
The above is an interesting story, and surely something worthwhile to mention at cocktail parties (if anyone goes to cocktail parties anymore), but it also illustrates a common theme that runs throughout this documentary: Phil Spector is batshit crazy and totally full of himself. The stories he tells about himself and his work all eventually make their way to the inevitable conclusion that he’s the best thing in the world, and everyone else hates him for it. He calls Brian Wilson a hack who drove himself crazy trying to emulate the “Spector Sound,” saying that Smiley Smile was an “edit record” that didn’t even come close to the sound Spector got on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “Be My Baby.” He even goes so far as to say that the only reason he was on trial for murder was because people didn’t like him, and if he’d been “Kobe [Bryant]” there never would have been a trial in the first place. And then there’s the inexplicable and abiding hatred he’s fostered for Tony Bennett all these years.
After watching Agony, you get the feeling that Vikram Jayanti is one of the luckiest documentary filmmakers around. After asking for years, Spector finally granted Jayanti access to his “castle” in L.A. and allowed him to film him for hours. The documentary alternates between interviews with Spector about his life and his work and footage of his second-to-last murder trial. This blending of Spector’s obvious cognitive dissonance with courtroom scenes, overwhelmingly suggesting that he put a gun into his girlfriend’s mouth and shot her for apparently no reason, is both compelling and illuminating. In his interviews, Spector shies away from his history of violence, the almost comical habit he had of pulling a gun on just about every artist he worked with. This is probably the only shrewd thing he does throughout his interviews; the rest of the time he’s talking about how much of a badass he is and simultaneously how sorry we should feel for him.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a fascinating look at one of the most brilliant musical minds in history, a man who changed the most basic sonic elements of pop music. The heartbreak and abandonment that ensued from his father’s suicide when Spector was a boy is still palpable, and the interview in which Spector finally opens up about his father is one of the most emotionally devastating pieces of film I’ve seen. The man who produced Let It Be and Imagine surely had his share of troubles, but it’s to Jayanti’s credit that he refrains for editorializing — he paints Spector as neither a monster nor a hero, more interested in his subject’s conflicted persona than in moralizing about art and crime.
Shortly after Jayanti finished shooting this film, Spector was sentenced for 19 years to life. He’ll be eligible for parole at the age of 88. I, for one, am thankful that Jayanti was able to make this film, as it is probably the only great portrait of Phil Spector we’ll ever get to see.