How to describe what Al Pacino does in “Phil Spector”? He dons the wigs and the time-warped fashions, he gnashes his teeth and rolls his eyes and bellows to the heavens about shaping the music industry and how he knows how the game is played: “They kill men for telling the truth!” He does his best to indulge in the scenery chewing that’s become an unfortunate tendency in the great actor’s later career work — and still he seems diminished against the backdrop of director and writer David Mamet’s audacious and unpleasant concept for this HBO original movie, which premieres on Sunday, March 24th at 9pm.
There will be no gnawing on “Phil Spector” — “Phil Spector” will eat itself, thank you very much. The film begins with a title card noting that it “is a work of fiction” that is “inspired by actual persons in a trial,” but “is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, not to comment upon the trial or its outcome.” A disclaimer about truth and narrative intent could probably be applied to any film that makes use of the stories of real people — “The Social Network” turned the founding of Facebook into the story of a young man pinning all his hopes for happiness and revenge on those who’d slight him on success, while “A Beautiful Mind” trimmed John Nash’s life into a neater tale of genius, mental illness and redemption.
But what Mamet does in “Phil Spector” is more queasy, because the inspiring incident is so close, and because the film boldly suggests that Spector was not guilty, or at least tried more for being an outsized freak than because of the evidence. Spector was, in fact, convicted of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting of actress Lana Clarkson in 2009, which makes the film’s application of fiction to the legal proceedings extremely uncomfortable.
Mamet is repurposing a tragic, ugly and only decade-old death for his dark Hollywood fable, and the transformation doesn’t sit well. “Phil Spector” might most easily be compared to Steven Shainberg’s “Fur,” which imagined a glib fairy tale beginning for the career of photographer Diane Arbus that had far more to do with the filmmakers than the subject. Mamet may not have set out to make a film about the facts of the Spector case, but the ways in which he uses actual elements from it to reflect his own disappointingly simplistic take on human nature end up feeling sour and distasteful.
Helen Mirren plays Spector’s defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden, who’s called in by Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) to take over the case while he heads back to New York to star in a TV show. Mirren’s given the difficult and generally thankless task of playing a no-nonsense woman who comes to believe not just in Spector’s probably innocence but in his charm (and who spends the film in the grip of a worsening illness).
Kenney Baden contends with Spector in person — wandering through his “castle” like a potential victim in a horror movie — as well as on tape, in footage from his years in the studio and via recorded interviews with his ex-wife Ronnie Spector and others in his life. Spector is, as Pacino plays him, a bloviating monster, a minotaur in his labyrinth who likes to expound on how brilliant he was and why the world resents and wants to use him for fame.
What did Lana Clarkson want? Publicity. What do they all want? People think it’s contagious, you can get it by hanging around someone who’s got it. I don’t know this? And that idiot — whom I would have helped, why not — came in here and ruined my life by sticking a gun in her mouth. For what? For what is this retribution? For what am I being punished?
Mamet’s right in that having a repellent personality isn’t a reason to go down for a crime. But the film’s disinterest in any greater details of the case outside of Spector’s account Kenney Baden’s preparations, in which she examines a blood spray test and watches how sample members of the public react to evidence they plan to present, make the film’s attempt to turn Spector into a sort of oafish martyr feel cheap and unfair. Kenney Baden is a professional defense attorney, and yet “Phil Spector” tries to make its major moment of drama hinge on what she feels about her client’s innocence, to make it one and the same with her faith in Spector’s ability to testify, where she hopes the jury will “get used to him, after which he will no longer be an oddity but a beloved eccentric.”
The best trick “Phil Spector” has is one that’s borrowed from Vikram Jayanti’s documentary “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector,” which provided Mamet with the spark for his film — it’s the juxtaposition of Spector classics like “Unchained Melody” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” against moments that are anything but lush and pop. Those moments of lift are rare in what’s otherwise a sad but rote showbiz tragedy traced out in Mamet’s signature rat-tat-tat dialogue, that can’t make you anywhere as compelled by its version of its subject as the director is.