The Arty Semite

Haunted by the Specter of Phil Spector

By Eitan Kensky

Getty Images
Spectral Vision: Al Pacino plays the title character in David Mamet’s HBO film “Phil Spector.”

Just about any moment in Phil Spector’s life could be made into a captivating movie: the years when he invented the Wall of Sound, wrote some of the greatest, most successful songs of all time, and turned the anonymous record producer into an artist, even a visionary; the time he spent with George Harrison and John Lennon recording their first solo albums; his tortured relationships with Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen; and his retreat from public life in the late-1970s, when Spector became a kind of Charles Foster Kane, alone in a castle of his fortune. (How audacious would it be to make a movie now, with Spector serving nineteen-years-to-life in a California prison, about his rise to fame?)

The events of HBO’s “Phil Spector” (written and directed by David Mamet) are the behind-the-scenes preparations for the first of his two murder trials: witness depositions, meetings with ballistics experts, and, above all, twisted conversations between Spector (Al Pacino) and one of his attorneys, Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren).

Yet it’s not entirely clear that “Phil Spector” is actually a movie about Spector’s life, or even a movie about the trial. The movie begins with a disclaimer announcing “Phil Spector” as a “work of fiction… neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.” This initially seems like a legal notice, a way of averting a lawsuit, or an attempt to skirt public criticism for making Spector sympathetic, but the disclaimer turns out to be much more interesting. “Phil Spector” is a movie about the bizarre reverb of life and storytelling, of life and biography, about the way that performers get trapped in their performances, and the way that those legends make it impossible to see the core person–if that person is even still there.

In particular, “Phil Spector” calls back to Russ Meyer’s 1970 cult classic, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” In that camp parody of the sexual revolution (co-written by Roger Ebert), a Spector-manqué named Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell adopts and corrupts an all-girl musical group, tightly controlling their career. They ultimately drift away from Z-Man and try to regain their lost innocence, but not before a spurned, jilted Z-Man traps them in his castle-mansion and explodes in a psychedelics-fueled murderous rage.

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Phil Spector, By Way of Al Pacino and David Mamet

By Jill Serjeant (Reuters)

Phil Spector’s life could be summed up in four words — musical genius, eccentric and murderer.

Courtesy of HBO

Playwright David Mamet’s HBO film “Phil Spector,” which airs March 24, makes the most of all of them but his take on the 2007 murder trial of the record producer has split opinion as much as the crime itself.

Al Pacino plays the bombastic, multi-wigged, gun-obsessed creator of the 1960s “Wall of Sound” recording technique in the weeks before his first trial in Los Angeles for the 2003 shooting death of struggling actress Lana Clarkson.

The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury. Spector, who pleaded not guilty and never took the witness stand, was convicted of second-degree murder after a second trial in 2009.

The 73-year-old is serving 19 years to life in prison and did not collaborate on the project.

Neither documentary nor pure fiction, Mamet’s film begins with a puzzling disclaimer saying that it is “a work of fiction … not based on a ‘true story.’”

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Al Pacino With Phil Spector's Hair

By Forward Staff

HBO has released a trailer for its upcoming Phil Spector biopic, about the legendary record producer and convicted murderer. The film, written and directed by David Mamet, stars Al Pacino as Spector and Helen Mirren as his defense attorney. Based on the trailer, though, the main attraction seems to be the many phases of Spector’s hair. Take a look:

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