Every work of art comes from a sort of controlled megalomania. When a painter faces his canvas, or a writer his page, he shuts out the rest of the world and becomes a master of the universe whose every whim must be obeyed. This sense of omnipotence is intoxicating, and it explains why so many radical, game-changing artists have been people who began with badly damaged egos. It also explains why they can be such miserable people to live with: once the creative spell is broken, and they’re thrust back into the real world of leaky faucets and unpaid bills, their anger can be blinding. Other human beings are even harder to control than finances or faucets, though that never stopped a man like Pablo Picasso or Marlon Brando from trying to impose his will on everyone in his personal orbit.
Produced for the BBC, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is hardly a great documentary, but it does show how the megalomaniacal impulse can impel the same man to create majestic works of art and to kill another person in cold blood. Documentary maker Vikram Jayanti scored an enviable media “get” when the famously reclusive record producer Phil Spector granted him an extended interview in March 2007, a month before he was scheduled to stand trial for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. Spector never talks about the events of February 3, 2003, when he picked Clarkson up at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, brought her home for a drink, pulled a gun on her as she tried to leave, and shot her in the mouth. But he does complain about the bias of the judge and jury, theorize that the media are out to get him, and compare himself artistically to Bach, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Of course Spector owes his place in rock history to his gigantic ego and his iron will. No one before him had ever tried to marry rock ‘n’ roll with the grandeur of classical music, and he was forced to start his own label just to realize his “Wall of Sound.” The string of timeless singles he cowrote and produced between 1961 and ’66—including “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Be My Baby,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and “River Deep, Mountain High”—required not only a detailed mental picture of what he wanted but the ability to get exactly that from his cowriters, arrangers, engineers, session players, and singers. Unlike the Motown records of the time, which all had the same basic instrumentation, each Spector single represented a new artistic adventure, taking weeks or even months to realize. No one but himself was allowed to touch the dials in the control room, and no one could hear the song as he’d imagined it until it had been captured on tape.
The results were ecstatic, but living with Spector could be agony: he’s on his fourth marriage and estranged from three of his four surviving children. He suffers from a bipolar disorder (his father committed suicide when Spector was nine), and his reputation for gun-related craziness stretches back to the early 70s, when he fired a pistol into the ceiling during the sessions for John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll LP (similar reports have come from artists as varied as Leonard Cohen, Michelle Phillips, Deborah Harry, and Dee Dee Ramone). During the trial, prosecutors presented five different women who testified that Spector had held them at gunpoint. If Jayanti brought up any of these incidents during his interview with Spector, the answers aren’t included in his film; Spector’s own theory for his legal predicament is that he’s being punished by the system for his antiwar activism during the 60s and 70s.
Jayanti was handed two legs of his stool when Spector sat for the interview and licensed his songs for use on the soundtrack, and the third when Judge Larry Paul Fidler, who presided over Spector’s first trial in 2007, allowed TV cameras into the courtroom. The Agony and the Ecstasy combines the talking head segments, Spector tracks, and trial footage in ways that are sometimes haunting and other times downright tasteless. The very first thing on the soundtrack is the opening verse of the Crystals’ notorious 1962 single “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss),” which Spector probably didn’t realize he was echoing when he told an Esquire writer that a suicidal Clarkson had “kissed the gun.” (Spector had no hand in writing the song—that honor is still being lived down by Gerry Goffin and Carole King.) You might think this would be one of the tasteless moments, but it gives a pretty good sense of the personal darkness lurking beneath many of Spector’s “little symphonies for the kids.”
Unfortunately Jayanti can’t leave well enough alone, and to Spector’s songs he’s added onscreen critical texts from Mick Brown’s book Tearing Down the Wall of Sound to let us know what we should be feeling. Worse still, he strays past the classic Wall of Sound recordings Spector masterminded in the early-to-mid-60s, to his much less personal work producing the Beatles and early solo recordings by John Lennon and George Harrison. For every lovelorn lament that offers a startling glimpse of Spector’s bruised soul—”To Know Him Is to Love Him,” whose title he took from his father’s gravestone, or the tragic, Wagnerian “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”—there’s another song like Lennon’s “Crippled Inside,” whose silly lyrics (“You can shine your shoes and wear a suit / You can comb your hair and look quite cute”) tweak courtroom video of the judge and attorneys. The movie hits bottom when Lennon’s ghastly “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” accompanies a montage of footage from Clarkson’s 20-year career as a two-bit Hollywood actress.
In the end, though, what makes The Agony and the Ecstasy so unnerving is the sense that Spector has bent Jayanti to his will, turning the movie into his last little symphony. One can excuse the endlessly self-glorying, self-exculpatory interview segments—what else do you expect from Phil Spector? But after a while Jayanti’s gentle, ingratiating questions become too much. “At what point in your life did you realize you were a loner?” he asks, sending Spector into a little story about his high school graduation and how he was the only student who made good on its theme of daring to be different. And though Jayanti comes back again and again to the defense’s main argument—that there wasn’t nearly enough blood and tissue on Spector’s body and clothing for a man who’d shot someone in the mouth—he omits the incriminating detail of the rag stained with Clarkson’s blood that was found in Spector’s bathroom, where the producer might have cleaned off the pistol before laying it at her feet.
In contrast to all the yakking Spector does in the interviews, the courtroom video shows him completely silent, staring balefully at the judge, prosecutors, and witnesses, his hands shaking violently. The first trial ended in a hung jury when two jurors refused to convict, citing the dearth of forensic evidence, but a second and untelevised trial resulted in a unanimous guilty verdict and a sentence of 19 years to life (Spector will be 88 before he’s eligible for parole). Nineteen years may seem like small recompense for another person’s life, but for Spector, who’s spent 50 years calling the shots, could there be any fate worse than to live out his days completely controlled by others?