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Movie Review

A fascinating look into Spector’s world, influence

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 26, 2011

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"The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector’’ is a fascinating shambles of a documentary — fascinating because its subject is so influential and so deranged, a shambles because its filmmaker can’t decide which approach to take and so takes all of them.

At the very least, the movie reminds you of how much popular culture owes Phil Spector. The obsessive sonic architect of such classic ’60s “Wall of Sound’’ singles as “Be My Baby,’’ “He’s a Rebel,’’ and “Then He Kissed Me,’’ the co-writer of “Spanish Harlem,’’ the man who cleaned up “Let It Be’’ (or ruined it; depends on who’s talking) and produced John Lennon’s and George Harrison’s classic early solo work, Spector is responsible for an absurdly large chunk of what the baby boom generation sounded like. He took teen emotions and built them into immense hormonal symphonies, with massed choruses and battalions of percussion.

Those early singles are great pop and, yes, musical masterpieces, and Spector isn’t about to let you forget it. “They didn’t know they were producing art that would change the world,’’ he says here about the singers and groups he recorded. “I knew.’’

That’s only half the Phil Spector story, of course. The other half consists of four decades of seclusion, paranoia, and a predilection for firearms and violence toward women that culminated the night of Feb. 3, 2003, when a struggling actress named Lana Clarkson was shot to death at close range in the entryway of Spector’s mansion in Alhambra, Calif. A 2007 trial ended in a hung jury; a retrial in 2009 found Spector guilty. He is serving 19 years to life.

Director Vikram Jayanti got access to the accused during the first trial — well, “access’’ is too mild a word, since Spector practically jumps down the barrel of the camera to state his case. He wants you to believe not just that he’s innocent (Spector maintains Clarkson shot herself, accidentally or on purpose, while he stood eight feet away) but, far more important, that human society has never sufficiently appreciated his many talents and creations.

Eyes bulging with self-martyrdom, a modest blond wig quivering atop his head, the then-67-year-old Spector compares himself to Galileo, da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Modigliani. He maligns the dead (“Buddy Holly got a stamp, and he only lived three years in rock ’n’ roll’’) and gripes about the living (“I still feel they take Dylan seriously because he had a social critique. I still feel they don’t remember I wrote ‘Spanish Harlem.’ ’’). The arrogance, the insecurity, and the naked need for revenge are mesmerizing.

If Jayanti had stuck to the interviews (and his own fawning questions), he would have had a movie — a perversely narrow movie, but a movie. “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector’’ wants to tell the whole story and then some, though. We get footage of the first trial and music clips from the 1960s, all intercut with the interview segments and an even spookier 1977 Spector Q&A. The director strains to make concordances and parallels, slowing down scenes of Spector in court and on a 1957 telecast singing his first number one hit, “To Know Him Is to Love Him.’’ (The song’s title was taken off his father’s tombstone.)

Gilding the lily further, Jayanti includes “onscreen critical texts’’ by journalist and Spector biographer Mick Brown — purplish streams of crit-speak that run along the bottom of the frame during the music clips. While these doubtless read sensibly in the context of a printed page, they’re howlingly pretentious as excerpted here. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,’’ we learn, is “a masterpiece of chiaroscuro, of searing emotional light and darkness, of pain and catharsis . . . the very summit of the producer’s art.’’ Even if Brown’s right (and he is), the tone is jarringly high-minded.

And probably exactly what Spector wants to hear. “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector’’ doesn’t answer the question of who shot Lana Clarkson; the 2009 jury decided that. (Clarkson herself comes off in this film as a desperate fringe starlet out of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.’’) Nor does it advance the long-established image of its subject as both a genius and a seething loony-tune. The film’s purpose, it seems, is solely to gawk. That may be enough for some audiences but it’s not enough for posterity.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movienation.

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF PHIL SPECTOR

Directed by: Vikram Jayanti

Starring: Phil Spector

At: Museum of Fine Arts

Running time: 102 minutes

Unrated (as PG-13: disturbing forensic material, language)

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