“Phil Spector,” a new HBO film that purports both to be and not to be about the famous music producer and creator of the Wall of Sound, now serving a prison sentence of 19 years to life, is a vexing piece of work. Well-crafted, with interesting Big Talent attached — writer-director David Mamet, stars Al Pacino and Helen Mirren — it’s better than most films of its kind, even as it remains unsatisfying as historical re-creation, philosophical meditation or pure drama.
Spector (Pacino) was tried twice for the February 2003 killing of Lana Clarkson, who died in the Alhambra house he called a castle. The film takes place during the first of those trials, in 2007, in which he was defended by Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) and Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren), who — in this version, anyway — comes to consult and stays for the summation.
According to an opening disclaimer, the film, which premieres Sunday, is “not based on a true story. It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.” This preemptive defense is disingenuous, if not absurd, given the movie’s title, its sprinkling of true facts and a cast dressed and coiffed to look like the characters whose names they bear.
Obviously, the people on-screen are Mamet’s inventions — he has made up most everything they have to say — just as the characters in any biopic or historical drama are created by writers and actors; this is not a documentary. Still, if you are going to name names, your responsibility, it seems to me, is to the whole truth, and to present at least a workable theory of what might be called the story behind the facts. Mamet fudges.
It might have been better for him to build his tale fresh from the ground up, to call his characters the Producer and the Lawyer, or John and Mary; he might have, without controversy or apology, put whatever thoughts he had on the nature of fame and art and the workings of fate and law into such a vehicle. But that would not have had the sensational, presold effect of explicitly basing it (while claiming not to be basing it) on Spector.
Mamet wants to have his cake and ignore it too, to invent what he likes and leave out what he finds inconvenient. The result plays as a brief for the defense, a one-sided argument for Spector’s probable innocence — one that claims Clarkson shot herself, by impulse or accident, with his gun; Spector was known to pull a gun to make a point or get his way. (“If he’d just been a regular citizen,” Mamet told the Financial Times, “they never would have indicted him.”) Clarkson, to the extent we are shown her, is made to look pathetic; and no other character speaks for her.
Some of the problems are just common to the form. Fact-based dramas and biopics gain heat and perceived importance merely by representing celebrated people or historical landmarks, or just from reminding us that truth can be stranger than fiction — much in the way that the trial of a famous person is deemed more interesting than that of an ordinary one. But one in a hundred does justice to its subject.
If Mamet has not succeeded in writing (or has tried to write) a Spector that honors the artist or explains the oddball, he has a great ear and eye, and the film is entertaining and energetic, in its theatrically formal way, even when it isn’t enlightening.
As in much of his work for stage and screen, he aims for a kind of spare, stylized naturalism — Cutler’s line to Kenney Baden, “What is it you love this guy all of a sudden you’re working yourself to death?,” is a nice example of his music — and the more obviously artificial the film feels, the more enjoyable it becomes.
It is not a courtroom drama, I should point out: Almost nothing here happens in one — though there is a mock-trial scene, with a kind of compressed “Caine Mutiny Court Martial” arc to it.
Pacino and Mirren and Tambor all have a good time batting the balls around; they are fun to watch. Pacino, who is very nearly Spector’s age, puts on the suits, the sometimes clownish wigs the producer would never admit to. (“A lot of people think they’re wigs — that’s called prejudice,” he tells Kenney Baden.) Like his costars, Pacino doesn’t attempt an imitation of his real-life counterpart; indeed, despite the shuffling and the hand tremors, this Spector feels more Al than Phil.
If there’s a story here, it’s Kenney Baden’s warming to Spector and growing reasonably doubtful as to his guilt. Sent alone into his mansion to meet him for the first time, making her way through a series of themed rooms, she is like Alice making her way to the Caterpillar.
Mirren, who stepped in for a sidelined Bette Midler, plays Kenney Baden (who was also a consultant to the film) as a sensible, no-nonsense mother (with a worsening cold); she calls Spector “Phillip.” It’s her movie more than his; she gets to sum up not only Spector’s case but also Mamet’s, posing this question: How is Phil Spector in his castle like the Minotaur in its cave?
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)