Spector, the new, four-part documentary premiering on Showtime on November 4th, is unique among music docs: It’s part true-crime narrative, part monumentally lurid Behind the Music. Directed by Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott, it takes us through the well-documented story of how Phil Spector went from iconic and contentious record producer to convicted murderer.
The tale is still both familiar and queasy. After he’d made booming, cathartic pop symphonies like the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” to name but a few, the uber-perfectionist Spector, a sort of pop Napoleon, saw his Wall of Sound became outmoded. He had a meltdown when Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep—Mountain High” wasn’t the all-conquering American hit he’d hoped, and became a hermit-recluse for much of the rest of his life, save for working on the occasional project for the Beatles, the Ramones, Leonard Cohen and a few others. Starting with his heyday, guns, alcohol and twisted or disturbing behavior (including virtually imprisoning his wife Ronnie and presenting her with adopted children for Christmas presents) become hallmarks of his lifestyle.
By the early 2000s, Spector hadn’t worked in about 20 years and was holed up in his castle in California. Then came the night in February 2003 when actress Lana Clarkson was found dead of a gunshot wound in the foyer of his home. Spector was arrested and indicted for murder, becoming the center of a scandalpalooza celebrity trial (complete with his unbelievable array of wigs) that ended in a hung jury and mistrial in 2007. Two years later, he was found guilty of second-degree murder during a far more low-key trial; sentenced to 19 years to life, he was hauled off to jail and died in January 2021 of Covid-19 at 81.
Pop history is jammed with all sorts of grim and sordid tales, but Spector’s rise and fall remains singular. And Spector benefits from spooky cinematography (especially of his now-deserted estate), audio and video interviews he did right before and during the trial, and the participation of a wide range of associates, witnesses and family members: singers Darlene Love and LaLa Brooks, Spector’s daughter Nicole, Clarkson’s mother and friends, songwriter Barry Mann, session players Carol Kaye and Don Randi, British journalist Mick Brown (who’s something of a narrator), defense and prosecution lawyers, even Spector’s wig maker. The result is a gripping retelling of the story, with dollops of new perspectives and details along the way. Here are five key thing we learned from the documentary.
The warning signs were there way early. When Spector was nine, his father, a construction worker, killed himself by asphyxiation in his car. Spector’s daughter Nicole calls it “a trauma that wasn’t hands-on dealt with.” According to Brown, who conducted an extensive and rare interview with Spector right before that horrible night in 2003, the young Spector was then “bullied” by his mother and sister, which didn’t help the situation (or, perhaps, his feelings towards women).
After his family moved from New York to Los Angeles, Spector seemed to find focus and escape in music — initially becoming a competent jazz guitarist before forming a high school trio, the Teddy Bears. In the doc, Teddy Bears singer Carol Connors, then a teenage classmate, recalls the time the group had to sing their swooning, adoring hit, “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” on TV. When Connors reached for the climactic high note during rehearsal, her voice cracked. “Phil put me up against the wall and said, ‘If you fuck up my song, I’m gonna kill you!’” Connors recalls, still sounding startled 64 years later. Spector was likely exaggerating, but the moment is a window into the control and anger issues that would define the reset of his life.
Lana Clarkson’s life was even more tragic than we knew. Frequently in Spector, friends, family member and even cops talk movingly about the way in which Clarkson, a statuesque blonde, remains referred to, despairingly, as a “B-movie actress.” Like Spector, she lost her father early — in her case, at 16, related to his mining job. After working her way into the Eighties Hollywood film and TV world (cameos in Night Court and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, among others), Clarkson encountered numerous setbacks, including when she tripped and fell at a party and broke both wrists just as she was on the verge of getting her career back on track. As a way to meet more people in the business, she took a VIP-area hostess job at the House of Blues in L.A., where she met Spector on what would be the last night of her life. Among its many arresting visual documents, Spector includes eerie video footage of the two of them leaving the club for the ride to his home, as the old James Cagney movie Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was playing in the car.
There’s still no easy answer to what went wrong in Spector’s brain. Many interviewed here are still grappling with how Spector turned into a reclusive, gun-toting megalomaniac later in life. The doc explores his father’s likely bipolar issues and how Spector’s sister was eventually institutionalized. The assassination of Spector’s friend John Lennon is cited as a factor for his withdrawal from public life, along with the 1991 death of his son Philip Jr. from leukemia at age 10. Spector supposedly stopped drinking between 1997 and 2002, the year before Clarkson’s death. But then old patterns resumed. Nicole says that, at one point, her father had been diagnosed as bipolar and that his later behavior could have involved mixing meds with alcohol: “I don’t think that that made him violent,” she says. “It made him erratic.”
As Brown speculates, one pattern in Spector’s life was the way he saw people, women especially, as disposable in terms of his all-consuming career. Spector himself admits, in an interview with Brown right before the shooting, that he was more in love with his own records than most of the women in his life. When women did enter his world, he shifted to his control-freak ways — and Spector makes the case that this trait wasn’t limited to maintaining a firm hand on his music (forcing Tina Turner sing “River Deep, Mountain High” over and over in the studio). In his first trial, the women who testified about his threatening behavior recount the ways he put firearms to their heads or pointed at them after they refused to leave his home or spend more time with him. In a video interview during the trial, Spector contends that none of those women ever filed a police report. But as former Court TV correspondent Beth Karas says, “This is a man who didn’t like to take no from a woman” — and didn’t want to be alone for too long. Based on the doc, that scenario likely lead to Clarkson’s death, given there were indications of a struggle (like a broken fingernail) before she was shot.
There was a method to Spector’s wig madness. Among the strangest aspects of Spector’s murder trials were the array of wigs he donned, from an electro-shocked Afro to an even creepier blond bob. All during that period, Spector insisted that those were actually his own locks. But Spector includes an interview with Piny, the Beverly Hills wigmaker hired by Spector, who confirms that his client had eight or nine wigs, and in one of the film’s most disquieting scenes, we even see Piny combing one of them as we reminisces about his client. According to the doc, Spector realized that his first trial hairpieces, like that ‘Fro, weren’t the right fit and told Piny, “I don’t want that look,” at which point the wigmaker toned down the truly outrageous rugs for more “natural”-looking ones. (Maybe Spector himself realized he’d gone too far.) Although Spector put on a brave front about his innocence, Piny says that he could “feel the fear” in Spector’s eyes when he came to visit him for a new wig or combing lessons during the trial. Spector always maintained his innocence, and his attorneys argued that Clarkson was depressed and killed herself (despite having just bought five new pair of shoes). Those moments with Piny may be some of the few times Spector betrayed anything less than confidence in his fate.
Nearly 20 years after Clarkson’s death, we still dealing with the aftermath of the murder and trial. Spector ends with the repercussions of that night. We see Clarkson’s friends and family gathering at her burial place, which they do twice a year, on her birthday and the anniversary of her death. Spector’s old friends or coworkers still wonder where things went wrong. With evident pain, Paul Shaffer recalls wanting to see Spector in prison and being told he didn’t want visitors.
But in retrospect, the concluding, grisly chapter in Spector’s life, culminating in Clarkson’s death, had an even bigger impact. It set the stage for the ways in which we now have to grapple, on a regular basis, with the sometimes gaping hole between an artist’s life and music. The recent death of Jerry Lee Lewis was another reminder of the balancing act between listening to someone’s monumental records and absorbing his or her or their messy, often violent lifestyle. Right now, with Ye, we’re dealing with that dichotomy once again. But thanks to his high-profile trial, Spector shoved that debate between life and art right in our faces. Can we still listen to someone’s music knowing the distasteful back story? As Spector reminds us, there are still no easy answers to that question.