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Phil Spector

2013 | 92 min | Not rated | 1.78:1

Phil Spector


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TV release date

 Mar 24, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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Phil Spector Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, March 29, 2013

"Phil Spector" opens with a bizarre disclaimer the places the events in the film in a state of limbo, unable to comment on the murder trial of the titular musical titan and unwilling to give the man an exhaustive exploration of his life and times. It's an ephemeral picture, taking a thin slice from the chaos of Spector's legal woes and savoring each bite. It's also the latest work from powerhouse writer David Mamet, lending the feature a pair of lungs to ease its odd quest to remain a satellite in Spector's orbit for 90 minutes, making no judgments and no pleas about a divisive individual flailing as he fights for his freedom.

In 2003, struggling actress Lana Clarkson was found dead in legendary music producer Phil Spector's mansion. While Spector claimed the incident was a suicide, the City of Los Angeles disagreed, putting the architect of the famous Wall of Sound on trial for murder, using his history with gun violence and physical abuse to suggest intent. Paying a large sum of money to criminal defense lawyer Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) for top-tier legal work, Spector (Al Pacino) is instead paired with Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), a dogged investigator who's been brought on for her ace courtroom skills. Interviewing Spector in his funhouse of a home to shape a proper defense, Linda discovers an arrogant, unbalanced man clinging to his innocence, treating his courtroom appearances like theater, showing off a range of wigs to draw attention to himself. Gradually coming to the conclusion that Spector wasn't responsible for the suicide, Linda braces for the trial, attempting to toughen her unwieldy client before he's put on the stand.

"Phil Spector" is no bio-pic looking to retrace steps to pop music glory. It's not even a satisfying characterization of the man's current state of mind. Instead of history, Mamet elects to study millimeters of behavior as Spector gears up for his date with a jury, beginning the film with Linda's introduction to the defense team (while suffering from pneumonia) and her immediate attraction to the details of the case, where a fading bombshell with an extensive B-movie history died in the lair of one of music's most notorious hotheads, and he claims he had nothing to do with it. It's a legal bouillabaisse of lies, passions, and forensic science, observing Linda attempt to summon reasonable doubt when all signs point directly to Spector's short temper and his love of guns, using weapons to titillate and intimidate. The raw elements of the case are certainly enough to aid Mamet in his quest to inspect the legend at his lowest point, yet "Phil Spector" shows no interest in a grand depiction of identity, merely latching on to one aspect of the hitmaker's personality: his mania, which often manifests itself in monologues that reinforce his innocence and condemn Clarkson's fame-hungry desperation.

Structured like a television procedural drama, "Phil Spector" only selects parts of the case that interest Mamet the most. A question of blood spray after Clarkson allegedly pulled the trigger eats up considerable screentime, questioning why Spector's bone-white suit remained largely unsullied by wet red if the man shot the restaurant hostess himself. The movie presents drawings, diagrams, and exploding dummies to make a case for Spector's innocence, positioning this bloodless oversight as the key to the man's innocence. However, "Phil Spector" isn't truly concerned with challenging evidence, wisely sustaining a feeling of illness around the defendant that keeps Linda on edge, unsure of guilt, culminating in a chilling moment that equates Spector's taste in extravagant wigs (though he swears it's his real hair) with his fantasyland mental state, poisoning all legal planning. As much as it looks like Mamet is choosing sides, "Phil Spector" stays a judgmental shell game to the end, ignoring the lure of condemnation to play interesting notes of ambiguity.

While the movie lacks muscle as a legal drama, skipping around to such a degree, it's impossible to process exactly what the courtroom stakes are, "Phil Spector" does have Mirren and Pacino, who make a fine pair of opposites, munching away on Mamet's finger-snap dialogue. Pacino is Pacino, yet there's identifiable characterization, portraying Spector as a fragile man trying to put on a show of strength, though powerless to his hair-trigger temper. He's boisterous but memorable, while Mirren is the straight woman, processing the big show with communicative eyes. With the material nearly ready-to-wear as a theatrical experience, it's wonderful to watch two gifted performers work with each other, trading barbs, questions, and yelps with aplomb. "Phil Spector" doesn't display any dramatic direction, but it has thespian verve and more than a few great scenes to help digest any inconsistencies and interruptions Mamet refuses to iron out.

Starring: Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, Jeffrey Tambor
Director: David Mamet

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