Admit it: Al Pacino really owed the world a Phil Spector impression. Who else could play the legendary rock & roll crackpot with such relentless levels of hoo-hah bravado? In the HBO movie Phil Spector, Pacino reunites with writer/director David Mamet, getting the Glengarry Glen Ross band back together. You can’t accuse Pacino of underdoing. He practically chews his eyebrows off in every scene, to the point where you have to keep wiping his saliva off your face. He does for cheap wigs what Scarface did for faux-Cuban accents.
Unfortunately, Pacino’s on his own, because there’s nothing in the movie to suggest Spector was any more than a wacky guy who wore wigs. Mamet makes no effort to get near the man or his legend. Instead, Phil Spector follows his 2007 murder trial, with Helen Mirren and Jeffrey Tambor as his defense attorneys. If you’re really into movies about murder trials, you might notice how low-budget and makeshift this one is, but if you’re into Phil Spector, you’ll mostly notice it’s a very dull movie about a very gaudy life.
Mamet has zero apparent interest in Spector’s music, or what made him a genius, or how he changed popular culture. He’s strictly interested in the celebrity “fall from grace” story, a footnote to O.J. and Michael Jackson. Mamet has even been quoted as saying he finds Spector’s lawyer a more intriguing character than Phil, which explains a lot.
There’s not much rock & roll in this movie, although there’s a load of Martin Scorcese envy, which is understandable since most of Spector’s song catalog has already been cleaned out by Scorcese the way Paulie Cicero cleaned out the Bamboo Lounge. What can it mean that Mamet uses the Ronettes‘ “Be My Baby,” one of the most powerful and emotional pop recordings ever devised, to score an L.A. traffic jam? Only that he’s pissed off at being 40 years too late to top Mean Streets.
Mamet seems to argue that Spector was railroaded into jail for the crime of being a generally hard-to-like guy, despite reasonable doubt as to his guilt in this particular homicide. Yet he’s interested in Phil’s innocence only as part of a syllogism: (1) Phil is a celebrity, (2) America is a land where celebrities get crucified by a mediocrity-worshipping public that resents greatness of any kind, therefore (3) Phil must have been framed. It’s not morally adequate for dramatizing a murder trial, to say the least.
And it’s not culturally adequate for dramatizing Phil Spector, since his murder trial is the absolute least interesting aspect of his biography. Homicides happen every day. But a song like the Ronettes’ “Walking in the Rain” or the Crystals’ “Girls Can Tell” or Darlene Love’s “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry”? A song like John Lennon‘s “Jealous Guy” or George Harrison‘s “Wah-Wah”? Or Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans’ “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts?” Those are rare. The Phil Spector who made music is much more mysterious and haunting than the Phil Spector who allegedly killed somebody.
There’s a scene where Mirren watches old video footage of a Spector recording session, and it’s by far the liveliest and most electric moment in the movie. (At least until Phil fires a gun into the studio ceiling. To Mamet, Phil gets boring if he goes too long without handling a gun.) Any of his studio sessions would have made a much juicier subject for this movie than his murder trial. Imagine Pacino as Spector and James Franco as Leonard Cohen, grinding out Death of a Ladies’ Man in 1977? Or Pacino as Spector and Martin Starr as Joey Ramone, making End of the Century?
Phil Spector built one of the Sixties’ most outrageous legends, summed up perfectly by Nik Cohn in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. He became an American myth in the way he epitomized the clash of youthful arrogance and fast money and garish taste and technocratic obsession and platform heels and New York hustle and L.A. isolation. The bodyguards, the groupies, the mansion, the madness: that was always the dark side of the story. And – to be honest – the less interesting side.
But the Phil Spector myth endures only because the music does. The Spector who produced “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” is an eternal rock enigma, pondered around the world. The Spector who’s in jail is just another celebrity in jail. The movie’s only curious about the second one, which is why it drags, and why Pacino’s impersonation is ultimately way too close to Dana Carvey’s Mickey Rooney routine, even though he spits out those bitter Mamet tirades like a one-man Wall of Sound. You keep remembering that question once asked by Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans: Why do lovers break each other’s hearts? That’s ultimately a much tougher question than anything in Phil Spector.