"I have devils inside that fight me," reads the epigram that begins Vikram Jayanti's documentary, The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector. "And I'm my own worst enemy." It is, of course, a quote from Spector himself, and it's a quote that aptly represents his ghoulish public reputation -- Phil Spector, one of the most talented and inimitable geniuses in the history of pop music, but also the eccentric madman who allegedly kept his ex-wife, Ronnie Spector, as a prisoner in their isolated mansion; pulled a gun on both John Lennon and The Ramones during recording sessions; and in 2003 allegedly murdered the actress Lana Clarkson.
Jayanti -- who's directed a slew of TV documentaries on everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Britney Spears -- filmed The Agony in the midst of Spector's infamous trial, and part of what makes his movie so riveting is, indeed, the sparks of crazy that Spector exhibits during their personal interview. He compares his writing "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" for the Righteous Brothers to da Vinci painting The Last Supper. He obsesses over his tarnished reputation, as compared to those of other celebrities. He seems to have a particular unexplained vendetta against Tony Bennett, but also produces some entertaining quotes on Woody Allen ("Allen will always be a pervert!") and Brian Wilson ("If I had a nickel for every joint he's smoked trying to figure out how I did 'Be My Baby'), among others. He even defends that afro, saying it was a tribute to the Detroit Pistons forward Ben Wallace and insisting that the cameras made the hair look two or three times puffier than it actually was. "It got a little extreme. It got a little extreme," he says.
But unlike most of the press around Spector for the past forty years, the majority of Jayanti's film doesn't dwell on Spector as the madman, and that's what makes it so creepily absorbing.Jayanti instead focuses on Spector as a tragic figure and Spector's brilliant career as a songwriter and producer. Spector speaks of his father's suicide, of being a loner, of being bullied in school. Post-success, he's certainly not humble -- he speaks proudly of his accomplishments, including one particularly memorable story of how he and John Lennon forever changed Martin Scorsese's and Robert de Niro's lives. But he still carries notable insecurities -- he laments to Jayanti that he's never been knighted "like George Martin and Paul McCartney" or that he's never gotten a commemorative stamp like Buddy Holly. The result isn't so much pity or sympathy for the man so much as it is a realization of how twisted and murky his mind is.
Music fans will appreciate the film's clips of live performances -- The Ronettes bopping to "Be My Baby," Spector meekly strumming his first hit, "To Know Him Is To Love Him," with the Teddy Bears, Tina Turner in a very sheer blouse belting out "River Deep - Mountain High." In one touching moment, Spector is shown recording "Imagine" with Lennon (during Jayanti's interview with Spector, the white "Imagine" piano sits behind him). But more fascinatingly, Jayanti juxtaposes Spector's memorable, often light and jaunty pop songs with footage from his murder trial. While footage rolls of Spector's prosecutors presenting evidence and Spector visibly shaking in his courtroom chair, smooth and beautiful pop songs by the Beatles, The Crystals, and Darlene Love play, while text at the bottom of the screen analyzes the music and definitively points towards Spector as a musical genius. Jayanti, of course, wants to raise the question of -- how could the man who wrote "Da Doo Ron Ron" be a murderer? In his courtroom footage, he also skews towards Spector's defense -- forensic experts stating that the angle of the gun was wrong for a murder and right for a suicide, the question of why Spector's white jacket bore no blood splatters.
The footage ends stating that the 2007 jurors were unable to reach a conclusion, and a mistrial was declared. Spector is shown being driven away in his black towncar (the license plate reading "I Heart Phil"). But of course, that isn't where the story ended -- in 2009, a jury did find Spector guilty, sentencing him to 19 years to life in prison. Was the man who wrote "Da Doo Ron Ron" a murderer? The court said yes, and these days, the overwhelming public opinion also says yes. But Jayanti's film suggests that in trying to determine whether Spector killed or not, we're a bit like Brian Wilson trying to figure out the complicated sonic layers of "Be My Baby" -- maybe it's a secret only Spector will ever know.
Tonight is the last night of Northwest Film Forum's screening of The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector. The film shows at 7pm and 9:15pm.