Phil Spector’s life could be summed up in four words — musical genius, eccentric and murderer.
Playwright David Mamet’s HBO film “Phil Spector,” which airs March 24, makes the most of all of them but his take on the 2007 murder trial of the record producer has split opinion as much as the crime itself.
Al Pacino plays the bombastic, multi-wigged, gun-obsessed creator of the 1960s “Wall of Sound” recording technique in the weeks before his first trial in Los Angeles for the 2003 shooting death of struggling actress Lana Clarkson.
The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury. Spector, who pleaded not guilty and never took the witness stand, was convicted of second-degree murder after a second trial in 2009.
The 73-year-old is serving 19 years to life in prison and did not collaborate on the project.
Neither documentary nor pure fiction, Mamet’s film begins with a puzzling disclaimer saying that it is “a work of fiction … not based on a ‘true story.’”
TV critics and family members of Spector and Clarkson say Mamet is trying to have it both ways, with mixed results.
“It’s almost impossible to get past the notion of presenting ‘Phil Spector’ as ‘fiction’ which — given the meticulous recreation of events, down to the music producer’s crazy wigs — sounds more like an after-the-fact fear of defamation lawsuits than anything else,” wrote Variety’s Brian Lowry in a review.
Pacino is widely praised for nailing the bizarre, shaking persona of Spector as seen at the first televised trial, although he did not meet Spector while preparing for the role.
Helen Mirren plays Linda Kenney Baden, Spector’s attorney in the first trial, and the film draws heavily on evidence presented in court.
Friends and family of Clarkson say the film “murders the truth” by implying the actress committed suicide by shooting herself in the mouth after a date with Spector.
Meanwhile, the record producer’s third wife, Rachelle, whom he married while on bail after his arrest, has objected that it portrays him as “a foul-mouthed megalomaniac.”
Los Angeles Times reporter Harriet Ryan, who covered both of Spector’s trials, wrote that the film “blends fact and fiction into a misinformation smoothie.”
Mamet says the film is a “mythological story” about a person who has fallen from grace.
“We’re in the realm of conjecture. What could have happened in the part that you didn’t see?” he said.
The film centers on the dynamic between Spector and Kenney Baden as she moves from the belief that he is a freakish character without a credible defense, to the notion that he may not have been responsible for Clarkson’s death in the foyer of his fake castle on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
Kenney Baden worked as a consultant on the film but insists she did not violate attorney-client privilege.
“I’ve always said to myself that the forensic evidence did not prove that he had committed this crime. And I think that’s what this movie explores,” she told reporters at a recent panel.
Pacino’s performance has drawn warm reviews and Time magazine called the film “sinfully entertaining.” But The Boston Globe’s Matthew Gilbert wrote that “everything aside from Pacino in this movie is surprisingly ordinary and lacking.”
Phil Spector, By Way of Al Pacino and David Mamet