Movie review: ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector’

Whatever the theme song to Phil Spector’s troubled life and times might be, “To Know Him Is to Love Him” probably isn’t it.

That, as Spector fans know, is the title of the legendary record producer’s first hit, recorded by the Teddy Bears in 1958 with words taken from the epitaph on his father’s tombstone.

Spector went on to produce hits almost without number, including “Be My Baby,” “He’s a Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

Today, however, the man Sean Lennon called “the genius geniuses come to” is in prison serving 19 years to life after the jury in a second trial convicted him of the Alhambra murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

Back in 2007, in the run-up to Spector’s first trial (which ended in a hung jury), the notoriously private and even reclusive producer was caught in a talkative mood by British director Vikram Jayanti.

The resulting filmed interviews are the disturbing heart of an erratic new documentary, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector,” which is playing for one week only at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

With his wide, hollow eyes, nervous fingers and celebrated big hair, Spector is a haunted-looking figure whose words are always compelling no matter what unexpected dissatisfactions they may reveal.

For Spector turns out to be someone who is not averse to holding grudges. He is still resentful about being ostracized in high school, unhappy that he has no honorary degrees, jealous of Buddy Holly (“He got a postage stamp even though he was only in rock ‘n’ roll for three years.”) and in general feels that “certain people never get their due.”

When he is not being unhappy, Spector takes his accomplishments quite seriously, comparing himself in the course of the film to Bach, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. When he says of his prime, “I was so brazen in those days, I could strut sitting down,” no one will be moved to argue the point.

Spector also finds time to tell a number of entertaining anecdotes, including an intriguing one about his decision not to shut down screenings of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” for its unauthorized use of his “Be My Baby.”

Not surprisingly, talking about music is what Spector does best. It’s fascinating to hear his thoughts on Tina Turner, to have him compare his celebrated “wall of sound” with the work of Brian Wilson and to listen to his version of how he saved the Beatles’ “Let It Be” album.

If Spector has any real regrets, they’re about the death of John Lennon, a man he worked with closely over a number of years. The white piano Lennon performed “Imagine” on sits in the background of the interviews, and Spector begins more than one sentence with the phrase, “If John had lived …"

Spector talking never fails to hold our interest, but other aspects of the film are less successful. Though it’s entertaining to see performance footage of many of Spector’s hits, the director’s decision to add typed commentary at the bottom of the screen by biographer Mick Brown is distracting at best. Words like “he alchemized the base metal of his own pain” do nothing but get in the way of the music.

Also problematic is the film’s haphazard use of Court TV footage of that first trial. The people shown are not named but identified generically (“The Judge,” “The Defense Attorney,” etc.)

The choice of clips appears to be almost random, though somewhat of a bias in Spector’s favor can be detected. In fact the entire film feels like it is on Spector’s side though, if the past is any indication, he likely doesn’t think so.