While a student at Princeton, F. Scott Fitzgerald once exclaimed to a friend, “My God, I want to be the greatest writer who ever lived, don’t you?” And it’s this same grandiose ambition that helped the basically insecure Phil Spector achieve what he has, producing some of the most irresistible, classic records in rock history. The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a documentary about the incarcerated record-producing legend worth catching while it’s still at Film Forum through the 13th (unless it’s extended). Director Vikram Jayanti lets you hear songs like “He Hit Me,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and “Be My Baby,” along with solo Beatles greats like “Mother” and “My Sweet Lord,” largely in their entirety and often accompanied by performance footage. These are mixed in with a revelatory interview conducted in Spector’s L.A. castle during his first trial, which resulted in a hung jury and led to his second trial, which led to a conviction and 19 years to life for murdering actress Lana Clarkson.
Jayanti does not interview anyone besides Spector, so any criticism of him comes from the prosecutor in trial footage, Spector’s own quotes of his detractors, and more subtly through some of the editing choices. As the film crescendos, Jayanti employs an explosively incriminating clip of Spector essentially empathizing with Mark David Chapman’s split-second, irrational “decision” to murder John Lennon. He sounds like he knows whereof he speaks. Largely, though, the movie builds up a wall of sympathy around the semi-deranged legend. Spector’s ego is gargantuan, but it’s tempered by a cutting, self-aware sense of humor. Instead of comparing himself to musicians and producers, Spector prefers figures like Galileo, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Bach as equatable reference points. He compares his persecution to that of the great black jazz men, and takes full credit for the careers of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, because he didn’t seek an injunction against Mean Streets for its unauthorized use of his music. Spector considers himself Bob Dylan’s politically minded equal or better because of his own work on Lennon’s unfortunate and misguided “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.” His funniest and weirdest grudge is against Tony Bennett, who Spector denounces as a degenerate cokehead before MTV somehow made him cool again in the Nineties.
As if hearing Spector’s music while watching clips of Spector’s trial wasn’t ironic and fascinating enough, Jayanti also subtitles the shots with snippets of Mick Brown’s Spector biography, with florid, overwritten descriptions of the songs being played. The music speaks for itself, so being forced to read effusion like, “…an infectious singalong melody that seems to lodge in the brain…” and “…the closest thing to perfection pop music has ever produced” is a pointless, handholding distraction. Also, that almost all we see of Clarkson is her surreal blackface impression of Little Richard seems more than a little unfair. But overall, The Agony is a fascinating collection of juxtapositions. With music this good and an interview subject so funny, bizarre, and terrifying, Jayanti would have had to struggle to make a dull film. He didn’t. —Sean McAvoy