Friday, December 31, 2010

Arena - The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Let's finish off the year with a bang with a documentary from 2008 that I saw this past week for the first time.


In this outstanding documentary by Vikram Jayanti for the BBC, Phil Spector does little to dispel the notion that he's nuts.

He never comes across as violent or threatening. He's not a physically intimidating person. He doesn't have an evil glint in his eyes that suggests he might be capable of doing some truly nasty things (like murder). The film didn't leave me with a shred of a clue on whether he really did kill Lana Clarkson. His left eye does look rounder and puffier than the right, it's a bit of a lazy eye, it's more sunken, the lines underneath it are sharper and more pronounced. It might not be fair to judge a person by a physical deformity, however small, but this slight asymmetry in his face is just enough to be offputting. It's a small detail, but it's noticeable, even subconsciously in my opinion.

He never comes across as "nuts" in the sense of being "dangerous". He's simply not in touch with the real world.

It's right there in the very first scene, in his living room in his LA home, the scene of the extended on-screen interview (the first such interview he's ever done, and probably his last) that is the centrepiece of the documentary. The piano that John Lennon used to write "Imagine" can be seen in the background, just over Spector's left shoulder. The interview was conducted about one month before the start of his first murder trial. He rattles on about the upcoming trial, insisting that it's not the trial that worries him, it's the verdict. He repeats himself, rewording the same sentiments with little variation in the choice of words (he does that a lot in this film). It's not the trial, it's the verdict. He's not making even the slightest attempt to proclaim his innocence. He doesn't talk about what might happen in the trial, or how the negative attention has impacted his daily life. Instead, he reassures us over and over that he's strong enough to stand trial and hasn't a care in the world about what might be said about him in the courtroom. He's actually bragging about it. As if anyone in the world, with the exception of Phil Spector, would be worried over that.


Fast forward a month to the trial and you're getting hit by sensory overload. The video cuts between trial footage and clips of the Crystals and Ronettes performing on TV in the 60's (those clips are fantastic, BTW, and can be easily found on Youtube ... that Ronettes clip has long since been a favourite of mine ... after "Be My Baby" they cover the Isley Bros. "Shout", you really need to see it), along with audio from the trial and subtitles (written by Mick Brown) that fawn over Spector's abilities as a producer. It's one incredible song after another, and the documentary makes a point of playing nearly all of them in full, which comes in handy for soundtracking those courtroom scenes so our ears can remind us about Spector the musical genius while our eyes get to see Spector the accused murderer being torn apart in the courtroom.


His distinctively thin, high pitched, nearly effeminate voice is now raspy and hoarse. The camera framing is just great, usually managing to capture both his face and hands in the shot. This is notable because Spector is constantly fidgeting with his hands. It's hard to tell if it's an involuntary shaking or a nervous habit, but he does it ALL the time, even while sitting quietly during his murder trial, listening to the testimonies.


Phil Spector is a liar. Or does he really believe the things that he says? Is he just forgetful? Is he trying to cast himself in a more sympathetic light, or to forget that certain things ever happened?

His father didn't die when he was "five or six", in fact he was nine years old at the time. How could anyone forget his own age at the time of his father's suicide -- an event that every biographer agrees was the most transformative event of his youth?

He tells a long story about how he chose not to sue Martin Scorsese over the use of "Be My Baby" in "Mean Streets". He claims that Lennon called him into the studio in London to show him the film. How would someone obtain a copy of a film by a then-unknown director in 1973? Also Lennon wasn't in London in '73, I may be wrong, but I thought he didn't even step foot in the UK after leaving for the US in 1971. Even so, the fact that this supposedly took place in the studio would mean they were recording "Mind Games" (recording started in Oct. 1973, the same month that "Mean Streets" was released) ... in New York.

Spector didn't write "Da Doo Ron Ron", Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry did. Spector routinely took partial songwriting credit for bringing the song to life in the studio (and deservedly so), but in the documentary he gives the clear impression that he wrote the song all by himself (while building himself up as a hero for being "brave" enough to change the title from "Then He Walked Me Home").

I have trouble believing that a guy so addicted to fine tuning the smallest details in his music doesn't know the running time of arguably his biggest song, "You've Lost That Loving Feeling". It's not "four and a half minutes long" (at first mention) and it's not 4:05 (at second mention). It's 3:46. The anecdote about how he wrote "3:05" on the record label so that radio stations would play it is a really, really famous story. How can Spector himself not know how to tell it properly?


At times I feel that the documentary is trying to manipulate me, which is by far the biggest strike against it. It excerpts a interview from 70's where he's talking about his father's death, and then jumps a closeup of Spector from his trial, stoic and unemotional aside from his quivering hands, while Lennon's "Crippled Inside" plays in the background. There's also a section where "Then He Kissed Me" (arguably the purest and most innocent love song in Spector's catalog) is playing over trial footage of Spector's ex-girlfriends testifying about how he used to threaten them with guns. Director Jayanti wants to maintain "official" neutrality about his subject, so he tries to use Spector's own music to do the editorializing for him. Or at least that's what it feels like.


The best new insight into Spector's character comes when he compares himself to Galileo. He feels that he needed to prove himself and all the bad things that happened to him later on are simply the price he had to pay for being so damned creative, groundbreaking, and rebellious. Just like Galileo.

He also compares himself to Miles Davis in the sense that they both pushed themselves to do better because of the discrimination and criticism that they faced, and because so many people kept waiting for them to fail. I partly agree with Spector here.


Like I mentioned earlier, Spector repeats himself a lot when he talks. He'll say something, and then say it again in a slightly different way. He says it, but later on repeats it. He never says anything just once, he usually can't help himself from rambling on and eventually repeating whatever it is that he wanted to say. He says something, and it seems like he's searching for a more appropriate phrasing the second time around, but he's not particularly eloquent and more or less just repeats the same things over and over. So he says whatever it is he wants to say, and then finds a way to say it again. He says it, but then tells it to you again one more time.

And when you combine that manner of speaking with the occasional times when he goes off on tangents, you have a baffling little monologue on your hands. One time, he starts talking about "Be My Baby" and how hard it was to record, and compares it to the relative ease of Motown's recordings, and then jumps to Brian Wilson's obsession with the song, and then somehow goes off on how "Good Vibrations" is an "edit record" -- not a great tune by itself, but a recording that was made by all the quick edits and studio trickery, because it's an edit record, like the way "Psycho" is an edit movie, not a great plot story by itself, but an edit movie, and just like "Good Vibrations" isn't a great song, but it's an "edit record", and hopefully Brian Wilson is smart enough to understand that "Good Vibrations" is an "edit record" ...

And you know what? He's right about "Good Vibrations". It *sounds* great, but I've never liked the melodies (particularly the verses). It's a great recording because there are a thousand screwy things all happening at once.


No interview with Spector worth its salt would be complete without some bizarre revelations. He's upset that he never received an honorary doctorate from a university, even though plenty of other people in the music industry did and guys like McCartney even got knighted. Oh, and the infamous shot of Spector with that ridiculously huge afro in the courtroom was a tribute to Ben Wallace (those are his exact words. As if I could have made that up).


Somehow, Spector gets more likeable as the film progresses. He comes off as so puny and harmless, and after a while his ego just becomes part of his charm. And all the great music in the documentary is enough to soften even the hardest heart.

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