"Phil Spector" Movie Review: A Grim Tale of Death and Demonization


Los Angeles, 2007.

The Phil Spector murder trial was coming to a close. Lana Clarkson had been dead four years, allegedly having been shot point-blank in the face by the infamous music producer. Odds for acquittal were not in his favor.

Enter Linda Kenney Baden, the newest member of Spector’s legal defense team. She snaps and coughs her way into his reclusive life, and comes to believe what almost no one else does: Spector is innocent.

The relationship these two develop is the subject of writer-director David Mamet’s new drama Phil Spector, premiering March 24 on HBO.

This was an odd one, folks.

The title cards are quick to remind us it’s "a work of fiction," which is an important designation. Much of what follows is so steeped in melodrama and mythic iconography that it’s hard to watch as a "true story" without rolling your eyes.

We’re immediately told that Spector is a monster. His castle (which we’re introduced to on a rainy night, of course) is a maze of dark corridors and eccentric items: a hall lined with creepy owl sculptures, a table covered in swords, and an undersized bust of Abe Lincoln are a few highlights. There’s also the gun room, airbrushed with all kinds of weird colors.

Cue Spector’s startling entrance, which wouldn’t have been out of place in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Yet when she meets him, Baden seems anything but disconcerted. In fact, she allows the accused murderer and well-known gun nut (who has a history of forcibly detaining women at gunpoint) to wrap a blanket around her shoulders. Then they sit and chat on the couch together like amiable ex-spouses who are still sort of into each other. This is apparently the first time they’ve met.

It’s one of the more glaringly out of place moments in a movie filled with them.

Another is the soundtrack. The musical theme Mamet tries to roll with includes peppering the film with songs the real Spector produced. The Righteous Brothers’ "Unchained Melody" plays over the opening titles, and The Ronettes’ "Be My Baby" has a prominent role. Neither work especially well with the film’s dark "Beauty and the Beast" theme, not even in an ironic way.

Also off-putting is how staged the production seems at times. Mamet was originally a playwright, so a dialogue-heavy film is to be expected. But most of the interior scenes, in the legal offices or in Spector’s mansion, move too much like a filmed play.

Finally, the ending is abrupt and unsatisfying. The film seems to build toward an intense courtroom showdown that never materializes. Then it simply fizzles into a pair of odd "This is what happened to this character next" title cards.

Luckily, there are plenty of redemptive elements. Though Al Pacino basically plays himself dressed as Phil Spector, Helen Mirren anchors the film with her solid and perfectly nuanced work. There’s also a powerful and strangely heartbreaking scene where Spector’s courtroom garb is revealed, perfectly encapsulating the theme of the film: that the defense is futile because, in the public eye, this man is already a monster.

As this review indicates, much bothered me about the film. But surprisingly, its overall mood and thematic implications haunted me for hours afterward. There’s an emotional power to Phil Spector that’s hard to put in words. For that alone, it’s worth seeing.