Let’s get this out of the way: I walked into The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector thinking it was Carol Reed’s 1965 epic, The Agony and the Ecstasy. But instead of Charleton Heston butting heads with Rex Harrison over the Sistine Chapel, gay sex, and work ethic, I was given Phil Spector’s half-melted face and extensive music videos for crap like “Do Run Run”. It’s not that Spector is a bad subject for a documentary—his life is shrouded in infamy, from his relationships with The Beatles to his ongoing court battles concerning Lana Clarkson’s suicide/homicide; it’s that The Agony and the Ecstasy has no focus—is mostly Spector slumped in a chair, dropping random anecdotes from his life with occasional unrelated shots of his 2007 court case shoehorned in for reasons mostly unclear. Toss in a few music videos from Tina Turner and the Righteous Brothers, slap on some subtitles claiming that his 1960s production of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” was the closest thing to perfection the music industry has ever achieved, and you’ve got a pretty heavy-handed exploration of convolution and delusional grandeur.
Like most artists, Phil Spector started his career in high school, learning guitar and eventually forming the group, The Teddy Bears. After a little success with the mostly forgotten “To Know Him is to Love Him”, the group broke up, leaving Phil to fend as a record producer, competing against the Mo-Town giant. After struggling for several years and stumbling over many wasted moments (including the “discovery” of Ike and Tina Turner) he finally found success with The Beatles’ Let It Be, an album the band handed to him in the form of several crude demos recorded during their final, unenthusiastic months. Listening to Spector talk about working with The Beatles is the film’s single shining moment, but even this is largely thanks to the legend of The Beatles, and has little to do with the man himself. Talking about “The Long and Winding Road”, he states “John was playing bass and John didn’t know how to play bass—he was just guessing at chords by sliding down the bridge. He hated the song…I had to hire a compiler to mix it so you couldn’t hear the mistakes.” Spector went on to work with John Lennon and George Harrison during their solo careers, gaining himself slight notoriety, then was largely forgotten for about 20 years until Lana Clarkson was shot dead in his home in 2003. Since then he’s been embroiled in several legal battles, all of which culminated in his 2009 conviction and sentencing to 19 years in prison.
Spector doesn’t do himself any favors in this doc, spending most of its hour and forty minute runtime lamenting both his overlooked talent as a record producer and the media attention he’s gained through “trumped-up murder charges”. He constantly reminds the audience that he only wanted to “make a million-selling record”—to be accepted by “the system”. To Paul McCartney’s claims that Let it Be was a musical disappointment, he says “He’s confusing me with someone who gives a shit”. At one point he even claims he was “a little better than both” John Lennon and George Harrison”. That’s right—this owl-eyed melting old fart thinks he was better than The Beatles. The director, apparently unsure of Spector’s ability to rub the audience’s face in his own shit, goes that much further by adding his own pretentious analysis of many of the man’s productions, saying things like “Not only does the melody offer feelings of haunting loneliness, but it also lends a presentiment of Spector’s own future”. I can almost visualize a music studies grad student rubbing one out into a sock after writing that line. It’s a meaningless documentary about a sad, broken man—a man with absurd notions of self-entitlement and unearned grandeur— hastily cobbled together in a way that would embarrass low-level VH1 interns. Spector never cared for the music—was only concerned about his reputation, which makes the whole music analytics thing a little absurd, but more importantly, makes this doc little more than the story of a bitter corporate shill. You’re a lot better off checking out the Sistine Chapel flick.