Spector's Haunting Ego in Doc

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The documentary "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector" is simultaneously revelatory and off-putting. The subject of the film - the now 70-year-old legendary producer - sports a Dutch-boy blond wig, trembles with palsy, and launches into wide-eyed ramblings that both captivate and disturb. As Phil Spector's first murder trial in 2007 was approaching, director Vikram Jayanti was given unprecedented access to the infamously reclusive producer, conducting one of the only interviews with Spector ever captured on film.

Layering Spector's interview, clips from the two trials, and archival footage of the music he created with subtitled critical commentary, the documentary captures the producer at a crucial moment before the trial. Spector smugly asserts that he is an innocent target of persecution, launches into self-pitying soliloquies and emerges as the pained, self-appointed martyr of rock 'n' roll.

In an interview, Jayanti explains, "What's amazing to me is his sense that he is a victim of everybody and of everything ... that sort of narcissism, pathological lying and self-pity ... are not attractive traits, but at the same time I wanted to humanize someone who is easily read as a monster."

Since the majority of the film focuses on the producer's beliefs about himself, it would be easy to think that it's advocating Spector's innocence. In response to this view, Jayanti states, "Some people say that the film lets him off too lightly. I think that it's all there - I think the craziness is there, I think that the genius is there, I think the evil is there, and I think the hurt little boy is there. I was trying to do something a bit more complicated."

While juxtaposing archival footage with subtitled criticism can be confusing at times, it is crucial to Jayanti's contextualization and reframing of Spector's famous songs. Inserting iconic performances like the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," Jayanti provides yet another interpretation of such melancholic harmonies. The elegiac "To Know Him is to Love Him" - always sung by a female vocalist - appears to be a man's lament of unrequited love, but is in fact about the father who killed himself when Spector was four years old; the title is taken from the epitaph on the patriarchal gravestone.

The film explores the source of "genius" that seems to stem directly from Spector's oscillations between egotism and insecurity. Jayanti says, "That's what the film's about: How do you separate art and artist? Can you separate them? You think, 'This is some sublime teenage hoppy-boppy lovely shit,' and then you think, 'Here's a whack-job who's obviously crazy as a loon,' and in fact they're deeply entangled with each other."

The film's title originates from the 1965 Michelangelo biopic "The Agony and the Ecstasy" starring Anthony Quinn. Accordingly, Michelangelo, Galileo, Einstein and Bach are among the figures Spector compares himself to. Though his claims are difficult to digest, they also create empathy for a man who truly believes his own warped logic and has cast himself as the eternally misunderstood hero of his own internal drama.

"The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector" makes no attempt to explore the intricacies of the murder case, nor does it strive to exonerate or implicate its subject. It's a lot to take in: A wall of images comparable to the "Wall of Sound" Spector created. After watching the film, it is difficult to separate the songs from the genius whose legacy will forever be eclipsed by the infamy and insanity so evident in Jayanti's cinematic portrait.

Compare yourself to Galileo and Bach with Jennafer at [email protected]

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