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Phil Spector: Paci-No!

by Ethan Alter March 24, 2013 11:00 pm
<i>Phil Spector</i>: Paci-No!

For better and mostly for worse, David Mamet's HBO telefilm Phil Spector is another case of Mamet being Mamet. Once upon a time -- back in the era of Glengarry Glen Ross, The Verdict and even The Untouchables -- this would have been cause for great excitement. But within the past decade, Mamet has become the conservative mirror of Aaron Sorkin; a writer who uses his various films, TV shows and/or plays as spoken editorials. Their characters aren't so much characters as platforms from which both Sorkin and Mamet can stand and shout from, to the cheers of their like-minded fans and the boos of the opposing side.

And it's worth noting right off the top that Phil Spector is definitely not a fair-and-balanced fictionalization of the infamous 2003 case that saw the titular record producer (played by Al Pacino in the movie) behind such classic rock staples as "You've Lost The Lovin' Feelin'" and "River Deep Mountain High" accused of murdering aspiring actress Lana Clarkson in his lavish L.A. mansion. When the case went to trial in 2007 with Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) defending Spector, it resulted in a hung jury. But a retrial the following year ended with the producer being found guilty and sentenced to a two-decade prison term that he's still serving.

Going by the film he's made, Mamet, for one, apparently considers this a miscarriage of justice. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say that the movie idolizes Spector, but it sure as hell seems to buy into his side of the story -- which is that Clarkson was a fame-obsessed hanger-on with suicidal tendencies that attached herself to a guy who was both powerful and emotionally vulnerable. The movie's version of events clearly makes the case for Clarkson pulling the trigger herself, a theory it backs up by lavishing attention on a recreation of the shooting that "proves" it had to be suicide based on the trajectory of the bullet and the lack of blood spatter. Baden herself becomes a big proponent of this theory and becomes Spector's chief defender both inside and outside of the courtroom... and not just because he's paying her. Phil Spector subscribes fully to the cult of the crazy creative genius: Spector may not be the most well-balanced guy around -- and he's certainly not especially likable -- but damn it, he's the best there is at what he does and he deserves some goddamn respect for it. Not that Mamet has ever been accused of anything more serious than being a right wing crank, but you get the feeling he sees a kindred spirit in Spector. "Hang in there, brother," the movie seems to be saying. "Don't let those media bastards -- or crazy women -- get you down."

As you can probably tell, I found the message behind Phil Spector pretty laughable. As drama, it's not particularly convincing either, even with Mamet's rat-a-tat-tat flair for dialogue mostly intact. (There's absolutely no way that Spector and Baden had the kind of conversations depicted in the film, but that's another example of why Mamet and Sorkin are essentially the same person. Neither guy writes dialogue that human beings actually say.) The narrative itself boils down to a series of conversations and a handful of court scenes assembled in vaguely chronological order -- although there's never a clear sense of how much time is passing. If the film has any value (and I'm not entirely convinced that it does) it's the opportunity to see Mirren and Pacino work together, two old pros who know how to give their all even in bad movies. I'm particularly impressed by the close-your-eyes-and-think-of-England ferocity with which Mirren attacks a role that makes next to no sense as written on the page. I only hope that the real-life Baden doesn't blame her for the obvious liberties in Mamet's text.

But I know the question you all really want the answer to: how crazy is Pacino? The Devil's Advocate/Jack and Jill-level crazy or merely Scent of a Woman-level crazy? It's more the latter than the former, although he does build up a good head of steam during some of Mamet-as-Spector's more prolonged bits of self-absorbed whinging. You've already seen pictures of him sporting that crazy Afro wig that real Spector wore in court, of course, but that's really the only thing that connects his version of "Phil Spector" to the actual man. Mostly, Pacino plays the "Al Pacino" character we've all come to know and (ironically) love in a series of crazy-ass wigs. For posterity (and to save you from having to watch Phil Spector yourself) I'm going to close out this review with the five best rants the actor delivers during the course of the movie. Read them to yourself -- or, better still, out loud -- in your best cranked-up-to-11 Pacino voice.

"Abraham, Martin and John -- 1968. And then they threw in Bobby, Bobby Kennedy. Now, we know Lincoln freed the slaves; Dr. King fought for equality; John screwed a Nazi spy and anything else that would hold still for ten minutes. What the hell did Bobby do? He fucked with the Teamsters."

"You say the Jews invented the music business. The Jews didn't invent the music business -- I invented the music business. 7th Avenue, New York, there's a statue, a little old Jewish guy, yarmulke, bent over a sewing machine. He's that guy invented Ready to Wear. I invented the music business. Where's the statue of me? Where's the Presidential Medal? Sydney Poitier broke the color barrier? Are you kidding me? He was playing Superman. You wanna know who he was? He was an uptight frightened white guy's version of a black man. I put the Ronettes in their home, I put black America in the white home! First time you got felt up... you were listening to one of my songs."

"Jesus was so big, why'd they kill him? Because he was still the son of God. Still is not news. Somebody is still the greatest beauty, actor, record producer, you can't put that in the paper. What is news, then? News is that he likes little boys, that he's a thief, that he cheats on his wife. Or in the absence of any fault, that he's just too goddamn big for his fucking britches. Which is why they killed Christ."

"Okay, motherfuckers. I told you you should finish college, huh? Join the Marines, anything rather than throw yourself on my boundless mercy. Take you in from the cold -- and you know I did -- you should consider it a mercy I killed a lot of you, save you the shame of ruining this simple, fucking song. [Fires gun at the ceiling.] Send out for Chinese! We're gonna be here awhile. Play 'til the lemon chicken comes."

"You think these singers made those songs? I made those songs! Fuck this. Fuck this whole thing. It's a fucking charade. And who are you? How dare you! Who do you think you are? To come in here and accuse me! I understand, I know what's going on. I'm paying the lot of you for this whole thing. I understand that this semi-talented nowhere, this backup singer to whom I gave everything I own, my life, her life, my children. To have you come in here quoting her libelous, non-sworn, cowardly bullshit....I know it's a rehearsal, damn it. What do you think I am? An idiot?!"

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