Phil Spector

Phil Spector debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.

The most compelling character in Phil Spector, writer-director David Mamet’s intriguing exploration of the trial of the controversial music mogul isn’t the title character but rather his home, a castle in a moderately run-down neighborhood called Alhambra that doubles as a strange museum of kitsch Americana specializing in the life and career of the master of the house, who once upon a time revolutionized American pop music and produced a body of work to rival Motown’s and The Beatles’ before becoming one of pop music’s most famous recluses. 

Spector’s Alhambra estate represents a strange cathedral of All-American camp that reflects the haunted, past-obsessed, grandiose, and ultimately delusional psyche of the man who lives there, his very own version of Grey Gardens minus the warmth and comfort provided by a gaggle of feral stray cats. It is a dwelling fit equally for a monarch and a monster, a peerless creator of teenage symphonies to God or a contemporary show-business Dracula.

More than anything, Spector’s castle is, like the man who spookily inhabited it for decades, a realm out of time, a dusty, cobweb-riddled anachronism from a man whose oeuvre begs to be played on dusty old record players and Victrolas, rather than MP3s or sound files. It is the realm of a man forever shadow-boxing a past he does not understand and can never quite conquer or get over.

In happier, more successful times, the castle stood as a tribute to its owner’s massive accomplishments, but by the time a b-movie actress on the wrong side of 40 named Lana Clarkson infamously entered it in 2003, it was more of a testament to its owner’s hubris and insanity. Once the grandeur left, all that was left were the delusions.

Part of the tragedy of the Lana Clarkson murder lied in its second-hand tackiness. Spector’s life was once as big as the “Wall of Sound” he pioneered. In Ronnie Spector, he married a pop star he helped create, then the squabbling twosome went on to become the tumultuous Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor of the girl-group world. Spector produced the Beatles and John Lennon in addition to countless other luminaries when not minting new pop stars in his image.

At his apex, Spector was as big as they came, but the Lana Clarkson death felt unmistakably second-rate, a tabloid tragedy from the fringes rather than front-page headline news. Clarkson was at best a c-lister in the twilight of a career that was never much even at its zenith, and Spector was decades removed from being culturally relevant. When Clarkson died in his home under violent, mysterious circumstances and Spector was charged with her murder, Spector was more a ghost of pop music past than an active participant in the industry.

This is the world that Helen Mirren’s iron-willed lawyer wanders into in Phil Spector, a world where Spector (Al Pacino) is both a legend and a freak and the greatest challenge Mirren faces in defending Spector, beyond a client who makes her job harder than any prosecutor possibly could, lies in overcoming the widespread perception that drunkenly murdering a faded starlet in a creepy mansion is exactly the kind of thing the Spector of popular imagination would do.

Throughout Phil Spector, the tightly controlled Mirren watches video clips chronicling Spector’s inconvenient, decades-long history of dramatically pulling guns on people: employees, women, protégés, mentors, just about everyone. Hell, VH1 could probably devote an entire new channel just to new programs involving Phil Spector dramatically threatening people.

In Phil Spector, the facts and the evidence are overwhelmingly on Spector’s side, but Mirren faces a formidable challenge in getting a jury that represents the public in microcosm to ignore what their guts and the broad outlines of the case tell them: that this bizarre man with a history of violence and a clearly slippery grasp on reality must have committed the crime he has been accused of.

Phil Spector gets off to a very David Mamet start, with Mirren and fellow attorney Jeffrey Tambor slinging Mamet’s muscular, minimalist dialogue at each other as a form of interpersonal, conversational conflict before Mirren meets the film’s central monster in the form of the Lilliputian but formidable Spector, who emerges from the darkness with an epic monologue about the creation of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ “Abraham, Martin, And John”, a rant that segues nicely into Pacino-as-Spector’s favorite topic: the persecution of great minds and epic lives like his own by small-minded, petty people eager to see giants fall.

The practical-minded Mirren asks Pacino’s Spector for specific information that will help her win what she sees as a surprisingly strong case (if she can just overcome everyone’s conviction that the lunatic she’s representing is clearly guilty, she might just have a chance), but Spector is less interested in helping himself than he is in pontificating windily about his past and the glory he has been callously and coldly denied.

Pacino can be a terrible ham in his old age, but in the juicy part of Spector, the veteran thespian has found a larger-than-life icon that fits the grand theatricality that characterizes Pacino’s post-Scent Of A Woman performances. A desperate longing for bigness and significance proves the defining characteristic of Pacino’s Spector here, as well as his undoing. Pacino’s Spector seems intent on claiming the cultural significance and the spotlight he feels the world has brutally denied him, even if it means becoming the freak and murderer of the public imagination. In Phil Spector, the title character would rather be a monster and a freak-show than be ignored, even if that means spending the rest of a very curious life behind bars.

As a producer and songwriter, Spector specialized in big, white-hot emotions, in transforming the drama and romance of adolescent life into timeless, universal pop songcraft, but Mamet’s coldly methodical film approaches Spector’s trial and psychological and legal undoing with a sense of chilly detachment that’s distancing but ultimately compelling. Mamet treats Spector with morbid fascination more than empathy, like a majestic but strange butterfly he can put behind glass and display but never truly understand. 

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