Monday, 17 November 2014

Phil Spector (2013)

Legendary record producer and music innovator Phil Spector was found guilty for the murder of aspiring actress Lana Clarkson following a retrial in 2009. Sentenced to 19 years to life, today he remains in prison. 

This much we know.

But was Spector really guilty of murder - did he pull the trigger that took Clarkson's life? Or was it suicide? Or maybe even an accident?

Whatever your stance or personal belief, David Mamet's film for HBO. Phil Spector, is told from Spector's defence team's point of view - specifically that of attorney Linda Kenney Baden who handled the closing arguments for the first trial in 2007. As such the film gives strong emphasis on the suicide or accidental death defence supported, she argued, by ballistic and forensic evidence. Played by Helen Mirren, Baden is shown to be a determined professional who is intrigued by Spector and, despite suffering from pneumonia, takes on the case because she is convinced of his innocence.

The real reason to watch Phil Spector, besides any interest in the case, is an assured performance from Al Pacino that goes beneath the images we know from the courtroom - such as that of the elaborate frizzy shock wig - to make a man who is three dimensional and yet still unobtainable. Played with the certain knowledge that he alone knows what happened that fateful night in 2003, Pacino gives us something of the whiny self aggrandising, egotistical tyrant and bona fide musical genius as well as a savant like innocent, wholly vulnerable and only truly happy when he's playing around in the dressing up box or in the production booth.

Mamet's film is - to anyone who followed the story - naturally short on surprises, so instead he colours it with a knowing Hollywood style; Baden's first meeting with Spector occurs at his mansion on a stormy, rain lashed evening, a forbidding structure behind iron gates and barbed wire on an equally forbidding night. Deep inside its bowels, Spector wanders in a dressing gown, preoccupied with conversation largely to himself concerning the fates of those whose lives were tragically cut short through murder, suicide or sheer bad luck; the Kennedys, Lincoln, Monroe, TE Lawrence and Lenny Bruce all being namechecked. It's all deeply portentous stuff and ascribes to what appears to be Spector's overall theory (or at least Mamet's characterisation's theory) that once you're big, someone will want to take it away from you and end you. 

This theory proves to be the key to the film and it's actually quite novel that Mamet approaches such a controversial subject not necessarily via the 'is he innocent or his guilty?' route but more to do with the reason why so many people immediately assumed and believed him to be guilty - a reasoning that surely has something to do with how Spector presented himself down the years as well as the fame and acclaim he achieved. As Mirren's Baden is heard to utter at one point, American juries let OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson off, now they want to put someone behind bars. 

In the end the film closes before the 2007 trail is adjourned. Baden is left to ponder whether Spector's mansion is heavily protected in order to keep people out or to keep him in. She likens him to a Minotaur and admits to having some slight doubt to his claims of innocence. It's a sudden about turn that doesn't necessarily convince, nor is it explained how she reached such a decision - given that the only difference in Spector that day was he wore the infamous big wig to court. It is however perhaps in keeping with her professionalism. Her job is not to believe whether someone is capable of a crime, it's to push the doubt, however small, and the weakness in the prosecution's case to the fore in the minds of the jury. The film ends with a caption informing us that the jury could not reach a verdict and that Baden's ill health prevented her from defending him at the retrial two years later.

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