Phil Spector Speaks

06/30/2010 12:35 PM |

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Directed by Vikram Jayanti

There are few things as irresistible as the reverberating counterpoint of the bass drum and castanets in The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.” Arguably the epitome of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” one of the most distinctive production styles that gave rock ‘n’ roll the strength and force of a symphony orchestra. In recent years, however, Spector’s fame as a producer has been threatened by his infamy as a convicted murderer. Much like with Roman Polanski, it is difficult to discuss Spector’s art without either apologizing or criticizing his personal life.

Vikram Jayanti’s The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector smartly navigates Spector’s labyrinthine celebrity, reminding us why we love his music and why we are fascinated by his personality (regardless of whether we like him or not). From the film’s opening juxtaposition of Spector’s trial with one of his early hits, The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss),” it is clear that Jayanti has an eye and ear for irony. More importantly, Jayanti has an open mind and allows Spector to speak for him. Constructing his own subjective (and at times fictional) biography, Spector casts himself as the brilliant mind persecuted for his innovations while glossing over certain personal details (like flubbing the details of his father’s suicide). More than just an unreliable narrator, he’s arrogant, and has an unreasonable ire towards Tony Bennett. However, when he’s talking about music as an artistic and social event, Spector’s genius is unmistakable. Alternating (thankfully) muted trial footage with live performances from Spector’s long roster and one-on-one interviews with the man himself, it is never quite so simple as “to know know know him is to love love love him” (to quote Spector’s first hit with The Teddy Bears). But even Jayanti’s film reminds us that there is a wealth of darkness lurking below the surface naivety of the song (the title was taken from Spector’s father’s grave). It is this tension that makes Spector’s life so compelling a story to follow, and Jayanti’s documentary does justice to the complexities and contradictions of his subject’s life and art.

Opens June 30 at Film Forum