If Phil Spector spends the rest of his life behind bars, one of the last enduring images of a man who described himself as “the legend that the legends wanted to work with” will be the producer in a courtroom, sporting an afro of astronomical proportions. The odd choice of hairstyle — Spector relied largely on wigs — had many labeling him as a madman, an eccentric, a former musical great turned haunted recluse. The photo came from a pre-trial hearing when Spector was charged for the 2003 death of actress Lana Clarkson at his Los Angeles home; he was found guilty six years later. However, as Spector says in the new documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, that courtroom hairdo was just a joke, an innocent gag inspired by a Detroit Pistons basketball player.
“He said it wasn’t a particularly important hearing, and at these things everyone is tired and bored — he thought it might’ve been nice to go with a humorous hairstyle,” the film’s director Vikram Jayanti tells Rolling Stone. In the doc, which is screening at New York’s Film Forum, Jayanti explores Spector’s mind via his own words; Spector had granted Jayanti and producers BBC Arena a rare interview just two weeks before his first murder trial for Clarkson’s death. What emerges is a portrait of Spector that paints the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend as both a music genius and a troubled soul soundtracked by Spector’s own music, from “Be My Baby” to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” to “Let It Be.”
Spector is known as a notorious recluse who avoids the press, but Jayanti tells RS plans to interview Spector in his mansion — the scene of the murder — came together in mere days. “The few things he’s done in public with a camera on, he was doing a schtick. I didn’t want that, I wanted to have real people and get very direct and close,” Jayanti says. Ultimately, Jayanti and BBC Arena simply FedEx-ed a one-page letter to Spector’s mansion, asking for permission to speak to him. “It said, ‘Dear Mr. Spector, I make films about larger-than-life characters, often geniuses, at a moment of tremendous stress in their lives.’ And he wrote back two days later with an e-mail, and he said, ‘You sound like an interesting person, I know you’re a good filmmaker, come to the castle.’ “
Jayanti and his crew planned to spend five days interviewing Spector on camera. Their first session lasted three-and-a-half hours, covering topics like the birth of the Wall of Sound, Spector’s tough childhood, and anecdotes of his time with John Lennon. But that would be the last time the crew got Phil on camera. In the days that followed, Spector’s legal team stormed the mansion in preparation of the first trial, which ended in a hung jury, and Spector kept delaying the remaining interviews. Finally, a judge’s gag order prevented Spector from speaking to Jayanti until the conclusion of the trial.
Jayanti says he hopes his doc is a “Wall of Film” that mirrors Spector’s own layered and revolutionary “Wall of Sound” technique: At its most intense moments, the movie creates a gripping harmony of sound and images by overlapping Spector’s rare interview footage and scenes from the first murder trial with the complete recordings of 21 of Spector’s most beloved songs and critical text on each track by biographer Mick Brown, who wrote Tearing Down the Wall. “I felt it was crucial to get the audience to listen really hard to the music, with new ears, and hearing it as if they hadn’t heard it before. And also with Phil describing how he produces them, I wanted them to be able to experience the entire production as Phil intended it, which meant from beginning to end. There’s so much darkness underlying those happy, boppy, teenage-yearning songs,” Jayanti says. In addition to providing interviews, Spector also allowed Jayanti to use his music free of charge in the film, and although no written contract on that point was ever produced, the laws of fair use ensured The Agony and Ecstasy could use Spector’s music legally and liberally.
Spector vividly recalls his lifetime in music, but many of his memories are exaggerated reinterpretations of his past. The producer is infamous for overstating his role in some of his greatest works, from his contributions to Let It Be to allegations he added co-writing credits to songs he had no hand in crafting. “He says in the film basically ‘my father blew his head off’ and he was five or six at the time. In fact, his father gassed himself with a hose in the garage, and Phil was nine or 10 at the time,” Jayanti says. “People say to me, ‘Why didn’t you correct him at all these misstatements?’ I keep saying, that’s not my interest. I wanted to see what happens if I let Phil be Phil, and I think the result was I got a very accurate psychological profile, a very intimate one.”
In the end, The Ecstasy and the Agony of Phil Spector is a rise-and-fall tale fitting of one of the greatest and innovative producers of all time. “The film amply demonstrates the megalomania, and grandiosity and ego but at the same time, inside each of those things there’s a kernel of quite insightful truth. He did do an extraordinary thing, he was the birth of the revolution and he was a big, big part of it. Although he overstates it a great deal, that’s because of the quirks of his personality,” Jayanti says. “I want the film to be part of the discourse of in the future how Phil is viewed. Not just a footnote of a producer who went to jail for murder, but also as a person who gave a soundtrack to a generation.”