With production on the film starting all the way back in the summer of 2011, it’s been a curiously long wait for David Mamet‘s “Phil Spector,” and from the first moment, one gets the impression that HBO‘s lawyers were a bit nervous about the effort. Before we even see one frame of the picture, an opening title card insists: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.” But frankly, it’s a little hard to swallow, particular since the director himself has been quite clear about what he thinks about Spector’s fate regarding the murder of Lana Clarkson. “They should never have sent him away,” Mamet told the Financial Times just before he started production. “Whether he did it or not, we’ll never know but if he’d just been a regular citizen, they never would have indicted him.” And if anything, “Phil Spector” is a thesis statement for that opinion, one that, while certainly provocative, makes for dull drama.
The press notes for the movie also emphasize that the film is “Mamet’s exploration of the client-attorney relationship between legendary music producer Phil Spector and defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden,” but from the very start, we dive right into a thorough examination of the evidence. Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor), the lead defense lawyer, is already busy building a case for his client, but he calls in Baden (Helen Mirren) to give her thoughts on the situation. She’s sick, she’s had to cancel her vacation and frankly, she thinks Spector is guilty. But is he? Cutler believes there is enough reasonable doubt that they can mount a strong defense, and the most compelling argument he has is in regards to blood spatter. If Spector had truly shot Lana Clarkson through the mouth, as prosecutors will assert, his clothes would have been drenched in blood. But remarkably, the jacket he was wearing only had a couple of pinprick drops. Eventually, you’ll hear the words “blood spatter” so often, you’ll think your watching an episode of “Dexter.”
Anyway, Baden may not quite be convinced, but she’s intrigued enough to stay on the case, and she goes to meet Spector (Al Pacino) himself, unsure of what she’ll get. The subject of myth and legend, his reputation as a slightly unhinged, egomaniac precedes him, but what she and the audience meet is someone closer to Charles Foster Kane. Living in his own, massive Xanadu-like mansion — curiously kept chillingly cold — it’s a gaudily decorated place, filled with odd corners, knick-knacks and more. While he may be eccentric, the one thing that hasn’t aged is his own sense of self importance. “I put black America in the white home,” he boasts, while playing “You Got That Loving Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers, which he claims was “the greatest song ever released.” Baden leaves her meeting intrigued by Spector, maybe a little bit touched (he placed a blanket around her shoulders to keep her warm, aww), but the idea that the film is an “exploration” of their relationship never really moves past this opening third.
From here on in, “Phil Spector” goes strictly into legal drama mode, with everything the lawyer and music producer do or talk about framed around his case. The script, penned by Mamet himself, doesn’t waste any moment to offer up all sorts of defenses for Spector. At one point it’s suggested that because O.J. Simpson got off in 1995, the prosecution sees this as a chance to right a wrong (a pretty far fetched notion). While Baden insists she won’t put the victim on trial, viewers are still given the theory that a crackpot Clarkson may have killed herself, disappointed she couldn’t get her movie career going. This point is underscored by Clarkson’s embarrassing demo reel, which shows her in a mock TV show interview with Little Richard, playing both the host and musician. But the position Mamet likes best is that Spector was just an eccentric genius that the public wanted to take down a peg. “Extraordinary accomplishments transforms the grateful into an audience, and the envious into a mob. You watch, see if I’m not right,” Spector says.
From focus groups trying to figure out which defense strategy works best, to even a mock trial where Spector himself gets to practice testifying on his behalf (though he wouldn’t do so in the actual trial), Mamet does everything possible to stir the pot that maybe Spector didn’t do it. Well, disclaimers or not, if that’s his intention, that’s fine, but unfortunately, it doesn’t make for much of a movie. The director is lucky that he has two great leads who really commit. In a role that could easily get out of hand, Pacino nicely underplays, and aside from a couple of more explosive scenes, zeros in on the vulnerability rather than thw hubris of the producer, to nice effect. Mirren is Mirren, reliably solid as the lawyer who begins to believe her client, but realizes there may be nothing she can do.
But outside of the provocative notions it puts forth, “Phil Spector” is rather thin. Without the balance of seeing why the prosecutors think they have their man, the narrative is merely attacking a mostly invisible opponent, and because we already know the outcome, the stakes are almost non-existent. All the focus on the legal maneuvering means we don’t really learn much about Spector at all. But more disappointing is that “Phil Spector” is missing Mamet’s usual piss and vinegar. His trademark patter and dialogue isn’t really present, replaced by dull procedural mechanics, and while he’s never been the most visual filmmaker, the movie is often ugly and flat. David Fincher has shown that a movie that takes place mostly in rooms with people talking can still look great, but Mamet can’t seem to find any inspiration in his tight settings.
In the end, and if we take the filmmakers at their word that they truly were just using this sensational moment in Spector’s life as a launching pad for dramatic reasons, “Phil Spector” is still a movie with an identity crisis. It wants to delve into the messy person that is Spector and try and understand him, but at the same time tries to mount a defense for a crime he’s been convicted for. And simply put, these two halves just never really gel, resulting in a picture that’s a wall of sound without much melody. [C]
“Phil Spector” airs on HBO, Sunday March 24th at 9 PM.