Just about any moment in Phil Spector’s life could be made into a captivating movie: the years when he invented the Wall of Sound, wrote some of the greatest, most successful songs of all time, and turned the anonymous record producer into an artist, even a visionary; the time he spent with George Harrison and John Lennon recording their first solo albums; his tortured relationships with Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen; and his retreat from public life in the late-1970s, when Spector became a kind of Charles Foster Kane, alone in a castle of his fortune. (How audacious would it be to make a movie now, with Spector serving nineteen-years-to-life in a California prison, about his rise to fame?)
The events of HBO’s “Phil Spector” (written and directed by David Mamet) are the behind-the-scenes preparations for the first of his two murder trials: witness depositions, meetings with ballistics experts, and, above all, twisted conversations between Spector (Al Pacino) and one of his attorneys, Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren).
Yet it’s not entirely clear that “Phil Spector” is actually a movie about Spector’s life, or even a movie about the trial. The movie begins with a disclaimer announcing “Phil Spector” as a “work of fiction… neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.” This initially seems like a legal notice, a way of averting a lawsuit, or an attempt to skirt public criticism for making Spector sympathetic, but the disclaimer turns out to be much more interesting. “Phil Spector” is a movie about the bizarre reverb of life and storytelling, of life and biography, about the way that performers get trapped in their performances, and the way that those legends make it impossible to see the core person–if that person is even still there.
In particular, “Phil Spector” calls back to Russ Meyer’s 1970 cult classic, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” In that camp parody of the sexual revolution (co-written by Roger Ebert), a Spector-manqué named Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell adopts and corrupts an all-girl musical group, tightly controlling their career. They ultimately drift away from Z-Man and try to regain their lost innocence, but not before a spurned, jilted Z-Man traps them in his castle-mansion and explodes in a psychedelics-fueled murderous rage.