Documentary director Vikram Jayanti’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (2009) could not have been more aptly titled.
Spector agreed to an interview while free on a million-dollar bail bond, charged for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. Jayanti intercut the interview with Court TV (now truTV) footage of the first trial layered over a soundtrack of twenty-one Spector-produced songs played in their entirety. Subtitles from journalist Mick Brown’s book, “Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector” add another disconcerting dimension.
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Five women testify Spector had threatened them at gunpoint; expert witnesses expound on splatter patterns caused by a close-range gunshot to the head. The Crytals “He’s a Rebel,” “Then He Kissed Me,” and “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes swirl in the background. The effect is unbearable — and riveting.
The first trial would end in a deadlocked jury, 10-2 in favor of conviction. In the retrial, presented with the same evidence, the jury came back with a second degree murder conviction. Judge Larry Paul Fidler imposed a sentence of 19 years to life.
Vikram Jayanti sat down in San Francisco last week with Culture and Events to talk about the making of the The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector.
Spector’s Wall of Sound approach might have come off as over-the-top bombasticism in another context, but his “little symphonies” of adolescent longing were perfectly crafted for the monophonic soundscape of early ‘60s radio and phonograph technology. Were you a fan of his music?
Jayanti: I was aware of it, I bought his Greatest Hits Album in ’70 or ‘72. I never thought I’d meet him. In the 60’s you kept hearing what a genius he was. And then over the years you’d hear about the guns. I think with the film the revelation for the audience is they had no idea that all those songs were his. I didn’t know about the Beatles.
I’d never heard the song at the beginning of the film, “He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)” by The Crystals from 1962.
Jayanti: What happened with that was there were protests from PTAs all over the country and it was banned from radio, but what’s weird is it’s a line from Carousel.
He sees himself, I think, as part of a long tradition in American song, from Steven Foster through the great musicals, Rogers and Hammerstein — he had vast musical knowledge.
Ute Lemper came out with an album called “Punishing Kiss” in 2000. Tom Waits and Nick Cove, among others, wrote songs for the album that expressed a similar sentiment.
Jayanti: With Spector I think there’s an uncanny psychological connection. It’s not an accident he did a song like that. What I tried to do in the film – this is music that a whole generation grew up really familiar with and sort of thought of it as happy puppy love, teenage love and yearning songs. As I edited the film I felt more and more, I was finding the darkness in these songs that we didn’t know were dark. What I was trying to do was sort of excavate the songs to see if there was anything in them that would explain how he ends up in a courtroom on trial for murder.
So many of his other songs have a joyous excitement, an undercurrent of awakening female sexuality. This comes up in blues and in songs from a more mature woman’s perspective, but Spector was doing something new in American music. The juxtaposition of those songs with the graphic court testimony was very disturbing. How could it be the same person?
Jayanti: That’s why I did the film. There’s this endless conversation about whether you can separate the artist from the art, the dancer from the dance, the singer from the song. And in his particular case there is such a bifurcation between the music, the sublime music and the genius at work — and this terribly damaged, terribly hurt person and perhaps murderer.
How often do you have a chance to actually in a sense have a laboratory experiment to investigate the connection between the singer and the song and to separate them out as well?
How long was the shoot?
Jayanti: We planned five days, Phil and I, but we ended up doing just one day; everything was happening so fast with the trial and everything.
Can you talk about Mick Brown’s subtitles?
Jayanti: He wrote a book about Phil Spector which I excerpted in the film, “Tearing Down the Wall of Sound,” which I think came out after the trial. Phil hadn’t talked to journalists in 25 years and for some reason he let Mick in six weeks before Lana Clarkson died in his house. Mick wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph that came out the day before Clarkson died, called “The Lost Genius of Rock and Roll.”
And what’s so strange is the timing. Apparently Phil hadn’t been drinking for ten years; he’d been sober for ten years. I don’t know if there was ever any history of drug abuse but certainly there was a history of alcohol-fueled behavior. The article comes out and the next day he’s on this drinking binge, going to Dan Tana’s and The House of Blues, and a woman ends up dead.
Did Spector impose any constraints on the interview?
Jayanti: The only promise I gave Phil going in was that I’d stop the film in the middle and play “River Deep, Mountain High” and the audience can f**king listen to it and I’m going to play it twice; he just giggled.
There were no rules. I didn’t ask any hard questions really because I just wanted Phil to be Phil. I figured the prosecution would take care of the negative.
I attended the trial. From the beginning Phil knew I was going to essentially intercut the trial footage with whatever we did so that there would be full counter point.
Spector asserted that the splatter evidence would exonerate him because it would prove he wasn’t close enough to the victim to have pulled the trigger.
Jayanti: At the very beginning he says, “The DA assumes I murdered her even though I was 8 feet away when she died and it can be proven forensically,” but that’s just him telling me.
There wasn’t anything in the film about their response. How did the prosecution handle that?
Jayanti: All I did with the first trial was try with broad strokes to summarize what the point of both positions were. The prosecution was never able to scientifically establish that he pulled the trigger. All they could do was work on the idea that here is a man with a pattern of guns on women and finally one went off.
The defense’s whole position was, “Where’s the science? Why is there only one bit of splatter under his arm and not on the rest of his white jacket?” It’s consistent with throwing your arms up.
Do you have an opinion about his guilt?
Jayanti: My view of the first trial is that it correctly ended in a hung jury. The prosecution had failed to prove that he pulled the trigger and that there was a scintilla of reasonable doubt. I felt that the right decision was reached.
I didn’t attend the second trial. I have no idea what the difference was in what was presented. All I know is this jury very quickly decided he was guilty whereas after two and one-half weeks of deliberation the jury I watched couldn’t come to a unanimous decision.
Maybe if I’d seen the second trial, it would have convinced me.
And the problem is, Phil is no help. Whatever he says, a different version comes out every time he opens his mouth. It’s quite amazing, if you look at the press conferences he gave and the run up after the woman had died — and I’m careful not to say after the murder, for me the jury is still out — but the things he said were just so nuts, all over the place. He fired three teams of lawyers, so I didn’t want to go there. They were correct in not wanting him to give testimony in the trial: Here’s a guy who will be his own worst enemy.
I mean that hair thing. That proved to the whole world that he was nuts. I correctly guessed that he was actually having a little joke. I think he’s so removed from reality, like many people who make a lot of money, live in a castle, act like god in the studio. I’m interested in the destructive toxins released by fame culture.
It’s a perfect Hollywood Babylon story — forgetting the human tragedy and poor crazy Phil — from The Day of the Locust, Fatty Arbuckle. This over-the-hill, giant music figure, producer, zillionaire in the castle, on the skids, twenty years going down hill, thinks he’s made a connection, goes to his house, a woman ends up dead. You couldn’t write that.
Did you ever consider adding narration or talking-heads commentary?
Jayanti: I wanted to get inside Phil’s head. I wanted the audience to have no separation between them and Phil so that they could feel the craziness and feel the genius and perhaps feel the hurt little boy whose father killed himself when he was nine or ten.
That doesn’t exonerate you if you murder somebody.
I’m curious to know what it feels like to be somebody else. All my films are designed to get me inside, like naked, under the skin, and so I was trying to do that for the audience. I didn’t want any voices coming in except for the defense and the procecutor – bam!
If I wrote you a check for 5 million dollars to make any film you wanted, what would you do?
Jayanti: I’d like to make a film about the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena) because when I look at them playing they look alone. I don’t know if that’s because of racism but when they’re playing they look like it’s them against the world. I want to know what that feels like because they’re the greatest tennis players of woman’s tennis ever.
When I watch other people playing I don’t think they’re alone. Ali in When We Were Kings was all by himself and he didn’t even tell Angelo Dundee what his plan was.
That level of aloneness, what does that mean? You try to find a subject bigger than itself, it might be something about race, it might be something about sport, it might be something else.
I’d make a film that wouldn’t blink; I wouldn’t kiss their ass, I wouldn’t nail them. Because I just want to know what it feels like for the Williams sisters to get out there and it’s only them, one of them Venus, alone; Serena, alone. When you watch them playing each other in a final you feel at least they’ve got somebody on the court with them.
What are you working on now?
Jayanti: I’m doing a film called My Suicide — about depression. It will be the 1st first-person film ever made about suicide. I’m the protagonist, it’s a documentary.
My Lincoln film was about the creative use of depression. He needed to self-medicate by doing something that large. That eases my depression for about three years, each time I make a film I’m free for a bit, but I feel I need to get down to the suicide fantasy and find out whether it’s just melodrama or whatever — and so I thought I’ll do a naked film.
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