“You've got an actress in career distress, meeting an over-the-hill legend, and at the end of it, there's a dead woman in a castle.” Vikram Jayanti — producer of the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings, director of the James Ellroy doc Feast of Death — is calling from London to talk about his new film, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, which begins a one-week run at the Egyptian Theatre tonight. “It's the perfect L.A. story.”
Spector was awaiting his first trial on charges of murdering 40-year-old struggling actress Lana Clarkson when Jayanti spoke to the BBC about making the film. “They were thinking of doing a film about Phil, a clip show. I said, 'I'd love to make that film, but why don't we talk to Phil?' And everybody said, 'No, no, he hasn't talked to anybody in 50 years.' So me and the BBC sent him a joint letter, saying, 'As your trial moves, the sensational aspects of it run the risk of obscuring your musical legacy.' ”
Spector's response: “Come on over to the castle.”
Jayanti “spent months with him, on and off,” ultimately shooting a single, three-and-a-half-hour interview shortly after the first trial began. The objective: “Let Phil be Phil.”
Phil doesn't do Phil any favors. From the outset, he plays victim, insisting that the “mean sonofabitch” judge he's been saddled with is trying to turn the jury against him. Spector compares his own achievements to those of Da Vinci and Galileo, claims he's been given a bad rap while Tony Bennett — “the biggest cocaine drug addict in the world” — is adored, and complains he at least deserves an honorary degree, like Bill Cosby has, or a postage stamp, like Buddy Holly was given. All of which seems relatively innocent and coherent compared to Spectorisms like his proud claim that the hook of “Da Doo Ron Ron” is “so down and dirty, it's almost like committing incest.” Spector doesn't confess — on the contrary, he insists he “was 8 feet away from [Clarkson] when she died, and that can be proved forensically” — but he does prove himself to be dangerously delusional. The interview segments play like the unfettered monologue of a megalomaniac madman.
Wedged between choice cuts from the Spector sit-down and highlights from Spector's first trial are extended archival performances of Spector's greatest hits by the artists who made them famous: John Lennon, Tina Turner, the Ronettes (featuring Phil's ex-wife Ronnie Spector, whom he allegedly threatened to kill, repeatedly). Sandwiched as such, these blissful pop songs — most of them about sexual frustration and obsession — play like red flags. Jayanti directly juxtaposes Spector's creative genius with the case against him by superimposing dense, beyond-hyperbolic critical assessments of Spector's creative output, quoted from Mick Brown's Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, over the trial footage. Brown's commentary is laughably effusive, especially when taken out of the context of printed hagiography. The prosecution tells us Spector had a history of threatening girlfriends with guns; the defense tells us Clarkson was promiscuous and depressed; Brown tells us “You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling” is “a masterpiece of chiaroscuro, of searing emotional light and darkness, of pain and catharsis.”
As the trial footage shows Spector, resplendent in fright wig and flamboyant suits, gazing blankly into space, it's easy to imagine that he's psychologically arming himself with these Great Man pull quotes. As Jayanti puts it: “I was watching him in court, and every now and then I would catch him sort of looking off into the distance, and I was sure he was just listening to his greatest hits in his head.”
That no one is interviewed in Agony other than Spector — Clarkson is seen solely through the lens of the trial, her talent demonstrated by a comedy reel in which she impersonates Little Richard in blackface — has caused some to cry foul. Blogging for The Hollywood Reporter, Roger Friedman suggested, “Jayanti made some kind of deal with Spector to make him look good in exchange for exclusive interviews.”
Jayanti tells the Weekly that Spector agreed to “normal BBC rules,” meaning he acknowledged from the start that he'd have no right to editorial approval or financial compensation for the use of his words or image. “I just wanted to see if I could get inside Phil's head. So, the first decision I made was, I wouldn't talk to anybody but Phil. I figured that the trial would take care of all the opposing views.”
That trial, of course, ended with a hung jury (Spector was convicted in a second trial in 2009). Jayanti thinks the first jury reached the right lack of decision. “I felt very much that a hung jury was the correct outcome for what I'd seen happening in the courtroom,” he says. “We'll never know what happened [the night of Clarkson's death], but neither side managed to prove their case that Phil did or didn't pull the trigger.”
Meanwhile, Ed Lozzi, Clarkson's publicist/ex-boyfriend and the spokesman for the Friends of Lana Clarkson — a consortium that notably excludes the Clarkson family members who have brought a wrongful-death suit against Spector — has taken to the Internet to protest Agony, copying and pasting oppositional sentiments in the comment threads on a number of blog posts about the film. “The British, who produced The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector, usually DONT GET IT,” Lozzi's protest begins. “We, the Friends of Lana Clarkson group, are officially ignoring this production — mainly to not bring any further attention to it.”
This policy apparently began after Lozzi sent a written complaint to the American Cinematheque regarding its decision to show the film at the Egyptian.
“We weren't suggesting they don't show it, we just wanted to make a statement about it,” Lozzi tells the Weekly. “Even though the producers have gone on the record, saying this is not glorifying [Spector], it is!”
Lozzi says he and his fellow Friends haven't seen Jayanti's film. “I don't think any of us could sit through it. But we know what it's about. When we saw it was from the BBC, we were suspect immediately.
“The fact is, if it weren't for Lana Clarkson, Phil Spector wouldn't have the fame he has today,” Lozzi says. “He's a murderer who had a couple of hits in the '60s.”
Jayanti, for his part, plays the middle. “There are people who say, 'All he is is a murderer, and you shouldn't have a film about his art,' ” he says. “And, there are people who say, 'He gave me the soundtrack to my generation — let's not even think about any possible shootings in his house.' I was curious about the relationship between the art and the artist, and the rather damaged and disturbed and at times really scary person who is Phil Spector. How can someone who can make such sublime music be the same guy who ends up on trial for murder, then be convicted?
“My film really isn't about his guilt or innocence,” Jayanti maintains. “It's about how do you understand this music, and what do you understand about Phil from it? And how does that in some way help you understand why he's in the courtroom?”
THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF PHIL SPECTOR | Egyptian Theatre | Aug. 19-25 | AmericanCinematheque.com