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Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Vikram Jayanti documents the Spector of madness

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Phil Spector, a loner after the suicide of his father when Spector was 5, was bullied in school. He was only 18 in 1958 when he recorded his first hit, “To Know Him (Is to Love Him).” The strange, haunting lament of unrequited love turns prayerfully minor key—an elegy whose emotional genesis makes sense upon learning that the title was taken from the tombstone of Spector’s father. Within a couple of years Spector became the “Tycoon of Teen,” the producer-mastermind behind a brilliant string of hit singles, “little symphonies for the kids” he called them.

As the ’60s turned into the ’70s, he applied his “wall of sound,” with its orchestra of instruments and profound understanding of the recording studio, to sessions by the Beatles, John Lennon and George Harrison. And then he disappeared behind gated walls, guard dogs and bodyguards. Working only occasionally, ringed by weird rumors of gunplay in the studio, he was a Sunset Boulevard case long before his arrest in 2003, charged with putting a revolver into the mouth of Lana Clarkson, a failed starlet, and pulling the trigger.

During the interviews with the producer for his documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, director Vikram Jayanti came to like the man. Whether he believes Spector’s profession of innocence is an open question. The Court TV footage inserted into the narrative includes evidence for the prosecution and the defense. While ex-girlfriends testified to Spector’s history of violence and the chauffeur claimed to hear his confession after a gunshot inside Spector’s mansion, forensics experts swore that the shot killing Clarkson was more consistent with suicide than homicide. Friends of the victim claimed she was the “saddest person,” down-at-heels and out of luck.

The documentary ends with a simple note that Spector, when tried a second time after a hung jury, was convicted and sentenced to prison. In the interviews leading to that conclusion, the producer was an articulate spokesman for the art of his recordings and at least selected aspects of his secluded life. He voiced the grudges of a man who feels slighted by history. After all, he compared himself to Da Vinci and Bach, but it’s Bob Dylan who received an honorary doctorate and George Martin a knighthood. All he got was persecution at the hands of “them,” sinister forces that bear him malice. The Agony and the Ecstasy allows the long-diminished Tycoon of Teen to speak his mind without comment. The film runs Jan. 7-9 at the Times Cinema.