As I watched Phil Spector, HBOs docudrama about the 2007 murder trial of a legendary 1960s record producer, I found myself thinking about an old joke told by enemies of another iconographic figure of that decade. How can you tell when Lyndon Johnson is lying? went the joke. Well, when hes tugging on his ear, hes telling the truth. When hes scratching his head, hes telling the truth. When he puts his chin in his hand, hes telling the truth. When he opens his mouth, hes lying.
Thats true of Phil Spector, too, and I dont mean just the mouths of the actors on the screen. This film is swathed in duplicity from head to toe: disingenuous in conception, guileful in presentation, perfidious in what it shows and deceptive in what it holds back. Its an insidious whitewash of a convicted killer and an infamous smear of his victim. Its a shame on all involved.
If you grew up in the 1960s, Spectors music was the soundtrack of your life. He made records with everybody from Tina Turner to the Beatles, amassing a fortune in the process. But his genius for writing and production was soon obliterated by his reputation for dangerously nutball behavior, much of it involving guns.
By 2003 he was a quarter-century past his last hit, living in a spooky mansion in a hard-bitten little town east of Los Angeles. After a long night of hard drinking, he persuaded a nightclub hostess named Lana Clarkson to come home with him for a drink. A couple of hours later, he emerged from the house to tell his chauffeur, I think I killed somebody. Police found Clarksons body inside, slumped in a chair, dead from a single .38-caliber gunshot to the mouth. Spector was twice tried for her murder. The first trial, in 2007, resulted in a hung jury; the second, two years later, ended with his conviction.
Its the first trial thats the subject of HBOs film. Well, technically, thats just my opinion. True, the show has a character named Phil Spector who murdered somebody named Lana Clarkson. But thats just a wild coincidence, according to the title card that opens the film: This is a work of fiction. Its not based on a true story It is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.
That boast of magnificent disinterest wears a bit thin when you consider that playwright David Mamet, who wrote and co-produced Phil Spector, gave an interview two years ago in which he insisted that if Spector had just been a regular citizen, they never would have indicted him. Also suggestive of the presence of a point of view are the consultants Mamet hired for the film: director Vikram Jayanti, who made a documentary arguing that Spector was railroaded, and Spectors defense attorney, Linda Kenney Baden.
Baden, in fact, is the films protagonist, but thats just another coincidence. The role of Linda Kenney Baden is based upon, but is not a representation of, the actual Linda Kenney Baden, says Mamet in promotional material for the show.
By pretending that Baden is no more real than Paul Bunyan or Tinker Bell, Mamet not only licenses himself to make stuff up but builds a veneer of legal protection against Phil Spector the real one, who is notoriously contentious with his own lawyers (he went through at least four of them during his first murder trial). Spector might very reasonably object that Baden, by blabbing defense secrets to a filmmaker, is violating attorney-client privilege.