Phil Spector offers twisted characters caught up in expensive legal wrangling, all under the guidance of David Mamet, with his wonderful prose and take on modern jurisprudence. Al Pacino stars as Spector with Helen Mirren as his lawyer Linda Kenney Baden. Jeffrey Tambor, Chewetel Ejiofor, and Rebecca Pigeon co-star.
The real object of Phil Spector seems to be to examine how high powered, and highly paid, legal teams prepare for a high profile case with rehearsals of what kinds of questions and situations they expect to encounter. The movie, premiering exclusively on HBO, is not about whether Spector is guilty or not guilty of shooting Lana Clarkson at point blank range in 2003; that’s a personal conviction that each viewer will bring to the experience. But it’s Mamet’s detached view of courtroom machinery in action that gives the film such a compulsively watchable tone.
And of course the main performances by Mirren and Pacino, the latter at times looks so much like Spector that you feel like your watching the mastermind record producer as he appeared in the documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (d. Vikram Jayanti, 2009). Mirren herself dominates her scenes with a kind of jaded ambivalence as to whether she truly believes her client is innocent or whether it’s the money that propels her steely determination. While Mirren is shown front and center as Spector’s legal consul in the actual case there was a team of five lawyers.
Mamet gives us a shadowy world filled with two-way mirrors and coldly lit rooms where practice sessions for the trail take place. One in particular depicts a recreation of a bullet exploding inside a human head and the subsequent spatter pattern that’s actually quite intriguing. Such scenes are juxtaposed by flashbacks of a younger Spector, at one point going ballistic in a studio, waving around a gun in front of a group of older blues musicians and then firing it into the ceiling. There’s more than one musical bio that recounts Spector pulling guns during recording sessions. Spector was a musical genius behind the board but his personality was that of a monster. Phil Spector wants to explore such personality traits, because in the end it’s really about the fall from one time grace of a giant in his field to a pariah of humanity. Who better performs Mamet’s speech patterns and motivations than Pacino, even now starring in Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway?
Spector music abounds on the soundtrack and it brings comparison to Spector music used in other films. At one point Mamet uses “Be My Baby” only during a long take where its forceful beats are emphasized by the unbroken camera shot. In contrast, one of the best uses of that song was at the beginning of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, only the song was broken up with an image that combined editing and movement and stands as a go-to clip in any Scorsese retro. Mamet regular (and wife) Pigeon sings “Spanish Harlem” over the end credits. It attests to the subject matter of Phil Spector that even though you could care less for the person, he created songs that continue to elicit true emotion to this day.
- Michael Bergeron