If you aren’t familiar with the name Phil Spector, you’re certainly familiar with his music. He worked on 25 top 40 hits from 1960 to 1965 alone, and his work with the Righteous Brothers resulted in “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin,” which reportedly received the most radio play of the 20th century. After such an illustrious career, Spector was charged with second degree murder in the mid-aughts and convicted in 2009. He’s been locked up for the foreseeable future. The bizarre story, combined with the man’s eccentric and magnificent egotism, ought to make for a brilliant documentary. In the case of Vikram Jayanti‘s The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Phil Spector, it turns out to be, well, pretty good.
Ultimately, any film soundtracked by a bunch of Phil Spector-produced tunes can only be so bad. The songs were hits for good reason, and when played atop footage of Spector’s 2007 trial (which was later dismissed as mistrial), the juxtaposition makes for a few highly memorable moments. As The Ronettes melt hearts, we see Spector staring creepily ahead with his hand shaking. Attorneys present graphic evidence while “Da Doo Ron Ron” lightheartedly bounces along. It’s a powerful formula, and most of the time it works.
The trouble with the doc is not the general approach of the film, so much as Mick Brown‘s constant captions offering melodramatic sales pitches for the music. Incessant claims like “the closest thing to perfection pop music has ever produced” and over-the-top descriptors like “painstakingly crafted towering grandeur” needlessly remind the audience over and over that Spector’s production work is, yes, remarkable and moving. However, that sentiment is made clear enough by the songs themselves (not to mention Spector’s self-praise), and the “critical” statements offer no real insight.
Despite the cloying commentary, the quality of the music and the strangeness of Spector’s character are worth watching. Two hours feels a bit excessive, but over the course of an extended pre-trial interview with the man, Spector never ceases to surprise with bigger and bolder claims about his own importance. He references every great artist from Michelangelo to Miles Davis in regards to himself, and at one point he claims he’s a greater genius than both George Harrison and John Lennon. Just about anything positive he can think of in America’s cultural history, from rock and roll to alternative hairstyles, he takes at least partial credit for. It would be completely absurd if there weren’t actually a hint of truth to some of it.
For all its minor faults, the film is still a must-see for music history lovers and certainly of interest to pop culture aficionados. It drags in spots, and it adds more than it should, but Phil Spector is simply fascinating. His timeless work pressed against his massive ego set alongside uncomfortable court footage makes for a compelling document about one of the most irreplaceable, vital, and frustrating figures in rock and roll.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector opens Friday at the West End Cinema, 2301 M St. NW. $10. (202) 419-3456. Director Vikram Jayanti will be hosting Q&A sessions after the 5PM and 7PM screenings.