Television Review

HBO’s ‘Phil Spector’ a spectacular travesty

As I watched Phil Spector, HBO’s 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 he’s tugging on his ear, he’s telling the truth. When he’s scratching his head, he’s telling the truth. When he puts his chin in his hand, he’s telling the truth. When he opens his mouth, he’s lying.

That’s true of Phil Spector, too, and I don’t 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. It’s an insidious whitewash of a convicted killer and an infamous smear of his victim. It’s a shame on all involved.

If you grew up in the 1960s, Spector’s 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 Clarkson’s 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.

It’s the first trial that’s the subject of HBO’s film. Well, technically, that’s just my opinion. True, the show has a character named Phil Spector who murdered somebody named Lana Clarkson. But that’s just a wild coincidence, according to the title card that opens the film: “This is a work of fiction. It’s 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 Spector’s defense attorney, Linda Kenney Baden.

Baden, in fact, is the film’s protagonist, but that’s 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.

If Mamet wants to make a film arguing that Spector is innocent, the victim of populist envy, he certainly has that right. But it’s harder to imagine a more intellectually dishonest act than making a one-sided legal brief disguised as a movie, then rendering it immune to rebuttal by insisting its fiction and therefore need not be truthful.

And, make no mistake, Phil Spector absolutely is a legal brief, arguing that Spector was lynched by a mob of peasants jealous of his wealth and talent and confounded by his weirdness. “He’s a freak,” shrugs one disconsolate member of his defense team. “They’re gonna convict him of I-just-don’t-like-you.”

Again and again, the film’s characters insist, without contradiction, that Clarkson was a loony, failed actress who shot herself, either by design or ineptitude. There is no forensic evidence of Spector’s guilt, they say, and plenty of his innocence — particularly the fact that he was not drenched in blood, as he supposedly would have been if he were standing close enough to jam a gun in Clarkson’s mouth.

If Phil Spector were more fair, or better drama, it would admit there’s considerable disagreement about the forensic side of the case, and significant evidence that Spector cleaned up the crime scene before calling the police. It would admit that Spector indisputably had a history of pulling guns on girlfriends, employees and recording artists with whom he was angry. (He once fired a bullet into the ceiling during a recording sessions with John Lennon.) And it would disclose the numerous lies Spector told cops in the hours after the shooting, starting with the claim — refuted by numerous witnesses along his bar-hopping route — that he hadn’t had a thing to drink.

Oddly, the closest thing to fairness in Phil Spector is the blow-you-away performance by Al Pacino in the title role. Madly free-associating, bursting with megalomania and paranoia, erupting in non-sequitur rages that dissolve into sweet acts of contrition, Pacino is both seductive and terrifying. To paraphrase one of Spector’s best-loved songs, to know him is to fear him.

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