Review: ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector’

Vet BBC documaker Vikram Jayanti tackles legendary record producer and convicted killer.

Vet BBC documaker Vikram Jayanti, whose previous subjects have included Abraham Lincoln, Gary Kasparov and Britney Spears, here tackles legendary record producer and convicted killer Phil Spector, mixing and matching sound and image to intriguingly schizophrenic effect. Holding pride of place at the pic’s core are several in-depth interviews with the reclusive Spector, taped between his first and second murder trials; elsewhere, Court TV coverage unspools silently under full-track recordings of Spector’s greatest hits as onscreen text rapturously expounds on his genius. Updated since its initial 2008 BBC run, this fascinating docu deserves a niche run before inevitable smallscreen airings.

Veering wildly between paranoia (being judged by “12 people who voted for George Bush”) and self-aggrandizement (modestly comparing himself to Da Vinci, Bach and Galileo), Spector makes a fascinating subject. His reminiscences are peppered liberally with anecdotes about Brian Wilson (imagined consuming endless joints while trying to figure out how Spector got the sound for “Baby Love”) and the Beatles (with Spector framed alongside the white piano he bought for the video accompanying his production of John Lennon’s “Imagine”).

Spector discusses the long and difficult process of fabricating the famous “Wall of Sound” that propelled his most memorable platters, while Motown achieved something comparable organically, with little or no effort.

Archival kinescopes of the Ronettes singing “Be My Baby,” the Crystals rocking to “He’s a Rebel” and the Righteous Brothers belting “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” — plus a guitar-strumming Spector himself, performing with the Teddy Bears in an early rendition of “To Know Him Is to Love Him” (a love song to his father, we learn, that took its title from his epitaph) — are interspersed throughout. Snippets from a 1970s interview with Spector, sporting a blond afro, are thrown in for comic relief.

But the most original contribution to “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector” is surely the quasi-Godardian juxtaposition of silent-running trial footage — complete with diagrams, videotapes, displays of bullet trajectories and blood spatters — with signature lush orchestrations of Spector’s music, as one familiar tune after another, playing out in its entirety, trumpets his artistry. Effusive quotes by Mick Brown, enumerating each song’s peculiar brilliancies, are displayed onscreen.

At one point, Jayanti switches on the audio, catching the promotional reel of murder victim Lana Clarkson — a comic actress whose awful Little Richard imitation gains unexpected pathos as it plays to a hushed court audience.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector



A BBC Arena, VixPix Films production. (International sales: VixPix Films, London.) Produced by Vikram Jayanti, Anthony Wall. Directed by Vikram Jayanti.


Camera (color, HD), Maryse Alberti; editor, Emma Matthews; sound, Alan Barker, Nigel Edwards. Reviewed at Hamptons Film Festival, Oct. 10, 2009. (Also in Vancouver Film Festival.) Running time: 102 MIN.


Phil Spector.

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