Best I can tell, one should deconstruct the title of this documentary as follows:
The Ecstasy of Mr. Spector is listening to the music he wrote, performed or produced.
The Agony is having to listen to Phil Spector onscreen. A close second is sitting through 100+ minutes or so and having almost no coherent material presented as to his guilt or innocence.
Poor, poor preternaturally talented Phil Spector. Hated by everyone, never getting his due and forced to rage against the machine that’s wronged him – including (just to name a few) Paul McCartney, Martin Scorsese, and the injustice of him not getting the kid gloves treatment (apparently) accorded to Tony Bennet. And don’t even get him started on the whole Buddy Holly stamp thing. In short:
- Phil Spector is musically very talented
- Phil Spector is very impressed with Phil Spector
- Phil Spector is at least somewhat meshuga
Whether he shot a woman to death or not (at least one of the juries he faced thought he did) is given amazingly short shrift. Basically, you get great music occasionally interrupted by a guy with crazy hair and questionably fashion sense talking about how everyone else on earth can suck his balls. I’m paraphrasing slightly – but just slightly. When we’re not lucky enough to be watching recorded performances, screen time is taken up by focusing on Spector talking about himself and those parts are considerably less interesting, at least after a while.
Modesty is not Spector’s strong point. This is man who without hesitation favorably compares himself with Galileo, Michelangel, and Leonardo DaVinci. On the other hand, making music definitely appears to be something Spector knows how to do. Though making you think he could never kill someone is something he probably could use some work on.
There’s no shortage of music in this film – a full tour of examples from Spector’s writing and producing career is on full display and forms the background music of the film. And the music is phenomenal. Though there’s so much of it, the film feels long even though it’s under two hours. Much if not most of the time is spent on full renditions of Spector’s work (either as writer or producer). There’s an onscreen note at the beginning of the film that the songs are presented fully to give the viewer a full measure of his brilliance. Personally, I believe that even a casual music listener will be familiar with the quality of the songs (it is amazingly impressive). I’m not sure it’s necessary to slow down telling the actual story to play nearly every tune in full.
Much of the film has Spector presented as a talking head. At first the constant complaining that he’s not respected as much as other notables gives an interesting window into his psyche, but after a while it’s just repetitive. I get that the filmmaker’s are shooting for us understanding how Spector sees himself and how others see him is besides the point. Though it would have satisfied my curiosity to at some point address how others in the industry actually do view him. That said, it’s still amusing/sad to listen to the range of complaints, with my personal favorite being how unfair it was that Bill Cosby and Bob Dylan have earned honorary doctorates and he has not.
As someone who’s not familiar with Spector’s career, the range of his writing and producing was enlightening. That part of the film I can vouch for. Occasionally they also run written criticism of his music onscreen while people are talking and music is playing. It can be hard to follow, but understanding a bit of history on his popular and more controversial contributions such as “He Hit Me (And if Felt Like a Kiss)” (which I can’t help comparing with Florence and the Machine’s “Kiss With a Fist” mentally) was worth the effort.
With the musical backdrop interrupted only when people were testifying in support of his acquittal, eventually I realized that the filmmaker may have been trying to represent how Spector saw himself. While the study in self absorption and ego conceptually is interesting, I was quick to tire of the subject and wanted to know more about the goings on of that fateful night. On that point the film doesn’t deliver. With the limited info on display, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Spector was ignoring anything in the trial that showed him in a less than innocent light. From that it’s very easy to be skeptical of their whole “if the blood/tissue splatter doesn’t fit, you must acquit” strategy.
My suggestion is to lean towards downloading and enjoying Spector’s music vs. the film – and catching something else great this weekend. That movie about The Portuguese Nun at NWFF certainly looks interesting…