What Phil Spector’s Candor Says About the Standard, Sanitized Version of Rock History

Originally published inĀ Seattle Weekly

I recently saw The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, a documentary about the great producer, at the Northwest Film Forum. Filmed right before Spector’s (first) murder trial in 2007 for the death of Lana Clarkson (a crime for which he was eventually convicted in 2009), it’s basically a long and fawning interview with Spector about the highlights of his music career, never addressing the night of her shooting and only barely referencing the upcoming trial.

The trial itself acts as a framing device surrounding long snatches of “Wall of Sound” audio: the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, Tina Turner, and the Beatles. No problem there, except there’s almost no studio footage–the music of Spector’s greatest triumphs acts as a soundtrack to boring and incongruous trial footage, which Spector never addresses. The editing is clumsily biased in Spector’s favor, implying his innocence when it isn’t really borne out by the evidence. Making matters worse, the musical segments are accompanied by italicized quotes from a book by Mick Brown lauding Spector’s talents, as though we might fail to appreciate the beauty and importance of John Lennon’s “Imagine” without reading a purple review of the song scroll across the bottom of the screen.

So as a film it’s pretty flawed and sometimes wincingly bad. But the filmmakers were correct in their main premise: Phil Spector is a fascinating and wonderful subject. After decades as a famous recluse, unwilling to give interviews or do any press, the media circus surrounding the murder trial pushed him to let down his guard long enough to give this one fantastic interview.

Spector was the recording art’s Michelangelo. He was responsible for, or present at, the birth of some of the best music of the 20th century. Most of his peers and contemporaries have been interviewed thousands of times, their stories repeated, polished, and corrected until they’ve entered our collective unconscious as a sanitized and sanctified version of history we barely question. This ’60s revisionism has turned artists like the Beatles and the Stones into shiny cartoons, even as many of the players are still alive, still making human mistakes every day. The interview at the heart of The Agony and the Ecstasy is breathtaking compared to interviews with similar lions of the ’60s. Even in such an incomplete and frustrating portrait, Spector’s justifiable arrogance, persecution complex, obsessions, and insanity are so indelible that they add considerable weight and nuance to rock history.

Like Sly Stone or his friend Ike Turner, Spector’s freakishness diminished his reputation over the years, while his savvier contemporaries burnished their images and honed their anecdotes. Eric Clapton has told the story of playing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” so many times that a sort of haze has settled over it, as though it happened a thousand years ago. We forget that Clapton actually stole George Harrison’s wife, or that they swapped wives, or that Harrison was too stoned to notice his wife was missing, or that Clapton was a junkie. Robbie Robertson still dines out on his anecdotes about recording Music From Big Pink, never acknowledging that his bandmates all still resent him for unfairly hogging the songwriting credit. Keith Richards has us convinced that getting blood transfusions and babbling incoherently for 40 years is the enviable height of cool, when all evidence points to the fact that he may be the biggest asshole who ever lived. That all these guys once made incredible music blinds us to the fact that they’re creeps, and the stories they hide are the ones that might really benefit us to hear.

Listening to Spector revel in his glories, I was struck by how human he was. He’s a bizarre little homunculus, to be sure, but possessed of enough charm that you root for him even in his most grotesque excesses. Unlike almost all his contemporaries, Spector makes very little attempt at false modesty. Quite the opposite–he compares himself to Galileo! He knows he invented a sound and embodied a time, and he is willing to speak candidly, talk smack about his peers, preen a little, and just generally be bonkers. It’s refreshing and invigorating to watch a music legend be so unguarded, without the pedantic moralizing we’ve come to expect from our heroes. He doesn’t offer a Behind the Music-style arc of success; never asks us to believe that he overcame his demons and rose phoenix-like from the ashes; doesn’t wax philosophical about his heroin use in the ’70s; and doesn’t foist on us his duet with Sheryl Crow for the Save the Children Foundation.

Phil Spector is on trial for murder, wearing a different fright wig every day which he refuses to acknowledge is a wig, bragging about saving rock and roll in the ’60s, and ranting about what a cokehead Tony Bennett was. When he dismisses Paul McCartney as “full of shit,” you’re left with the impression that he’s absolutely correct. He can barely contain his resentment that Bob Dylan is considered an “artist.” He actually bitches about the fact that Bill Cosby was awarded an honorary degree. My God, what I wouldn’t give to hear McCartney be that candid for three hours.

Spector is one of the originators of rock and R&B, and we get to see and hear all his pettiness, jealousy, pride, hubris, and hurt. By the end of the film I was convinced that, innocent or guilty, Spector may be the sanest living member of that fateful class of 1963.
When those early rock pioneers are all gone, we will surely regret that we accepted their sanitized versions of their own histories. We will wish our rock journalists had been a little less credulous and fawning. We may wish that a few more of them were as bonkers and uncensored as Phil Spector.