Saturday, June 11, 2011

Telling Stories: Phil Spector's Agony & Ecstasy

Yesterday I finished the audio book Changing My Mind, a wonderfully rich collection of essays by Zadie Smith. What impressed me was the honesty of her perceptions. When reviewing movies she doesn't go with the crowd, she goes with the way she sees it. And her breadth of experience gives a good vantage point for these perceptions. Even stronger are her insights on the various books and writers she assesses. Being a novelist herself, she shares not only what is happening on the page, but shines a light into the corners of what she suspects was happening in the minds and souls of those who were doing the writing.

Though her essays on Liberia, Katharine Hepburn or going to the Oscars make for great (by which I mean insightful, thought-provoking) reading, Smith's at her best when dissecting the problems of storytelling.

Storytelling takes on such a variety of forms. This week's Sound Unseen/Duluth International Film Festival is full of stories. Thursday night we were introduced to Harry Belafonte's story in the documentary film Sing Your Song, which could just as easily been sub-titled, "Don't Give Up the Fight." Last night, we saw a portrait of Phil Spector titled The Agony & Ecstasy of Phil Spector. It's a remarkable accomplishment by director Vikram Jayanti because the camera never blinks.

Songwriter and record producer Phil Spector has been a major influence in modern music in part because he was striving for something more than just the next hit record. His concept of the "wall of sound" is now almost cliche, but was revolutionary in the Sixties. Hits like The Ronettes "Be My Baby" struck a nerve with audiences across the airwaves. Songs like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by The Righteous Brothers and "Da Doo Ron Ron" established his cred as someone who knew how to reach a mass market. When two years of recording songs for the Beatles' last album failed to produce a product, Spector was called in as Mr. Fix-It and in four months Let It Be was released. And no matter how much Sir Paul disliked the outcome, I for one consider it a favorite, recalling the very moment I heard it for the first time. After the break-up of the Beatles, Spector produced music for both Lennon and George Harrison.

But this is only backdrop for the documentary which used Spector's murder trial as a thread to weave all the pieces of his life story into a whole. Or was it the other way around? Maybe the trial is the backdrop and the real story is the man himself, in his own words, for that is what we get here... Spector spending a day in his home explaining the meaning of his life, Spector sitting on his couch talking, the camera rolling. In the background is the white piano he bought for his friend John Lennon with which the song "Imagine" was recorded.

There is no effort to conceal the size of his ego. At various points he compares himself to Galileo, DaVinci, Bach and Michaelangelo. And he is clearly bitter that someone like Tony Bennett, who was a coke head in the sixties, can get his past absolved, but Spector is treated like a leper. Or that Buddy Holly, who performed for only three years would be a legend and get his own postage stamp.

About the trial. Spector had been accused of having murdered B-movie actress Lana Clarkson in his home with a handgun. The defense points out that the angle at which the bullet entered was the angle a self-inflicted shot would be fired. They also showed that if Spector had fired while standing next to her with the gun in her mouth, the manner in which she was killed, it would have splattered blood and debris on his clothing, hands, face and hair... which did not occur.

Some of the reviews of this film describe Spector as creepy. His pasty skin and not so pretty sagging flesh repeatedly fill the screen. His flambouyant hair and attire give him an almost comical aspect at times. But I can't help feel pity for the man. As Jimi Hendrix once sang, "Loneliness is just a drag." In fact, early in the film Spector himself is asked why he lives alone in such a large castle. He said it's better than a single room with a toilet. Was he referring here to the jail cell he would eventually be occupying?

The first trial ended in a hung jury. The day-long interview with Spector takes place two weeks before the verdict. We follow much of the courtroom drama which is interspersed with Spector's candid rambling. We see palsied hands quivering through much of the film. And at one point John Lennon's poignant "Crippled Inside" becomes the soundtrack, another Spector-produced song. Spector knew the meaning of crippled because his father blew his own brains out with a gun.

To some extent we're all crippled inside and in this respect Phil Spector's story -- bizarre as it seems -- is our own story. To cite Goethe, our hearts are capable of all things from megalomania to murder. Whether Spector is innocent or guilty on the murder charge, to some extent one can only say, "There but for the grace of God go I."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think Phil Spector being sentenced to 19 years to life is one of the greatest travesties of justice ever.