The recently released BBC Arena documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector delves into the fascinating and eccentric career of one of the most renown music producers of all time, as well as the sensationalistic trial that sent him to prison for the murder of Lana Clarkson, an actress who was shot at Spector’s home in 2003. Cutting between the meteoric rise of the 18 year-old Jewish New York “whiz kid” called the “Tycoon of teen” and the story of the murder trial, the documentary artfully shows the genius of Spector’s work, accompanied by an in-depth interview that was filmed at the time of the trial in which he discusses his childhood, his career, his close musical relationship with John Lennon, and his fears over the impending verdict. Often comparing himself with Galileo and Leonardo, the documentary offers a unique portrait of the reclusive producer and how he sees his influence on the 20th century, as well as what he believes to be his understated role in the mass imagination, lamenting the fact that, unlike Bob Dylan and Bill Cosby, he never received an honorary PhD from a university, and how he suspected, probably correctly, that the public is generally unaware of his contributions to the development of rock music, substantial as they’ve been.
Perhaps most surprisingly, though, was the insight the documentary gives into the murder trial. The remarkable court footage seems to suggest that the judge had an unfair bias towards Spector by virtue of the fact that he was a celebrity, regardless of the actual evidence involved in the case (as Crime File News has well documented). The striking image of Spector’s clean white jacket which, according to experts, should have been covered in blood and tissue of the victim after firing a gun at point blank range, seems to suggest that Spector was most likely innocent of the crime (something which I didn’t believe before seeing the documentary). I suspect the reason he was convicted by the jury with extremely weak evidence was due to the eccentric appearance of Spector himself, who often looks unapologetically freakish with his outlandish suits, trembling hands and sometimes aggressive gaze, which, unfortunately, create an appearance of guilt. Nevertheless, when one sees the expert testimony of the doctors and forensics experts, one can’t help but feel that there is simply no solid evidence that Spector killed Lana Clarkson, and that, to the contrary, the death was actually the suicide of a broke, desperate actress who was heavily depressed and hooked on pain killers, as her journal and personal acquaintances attested. The uncertain evidence of Spector’s guilt resulted in a mistrial, as the jury were unable to reach a unanimous verdict (10 guilty, 2 innocent). In 2009, however, another trial was ordered -- presided by the same judge -- in which a unanimous guilty verdict was reached and Spector was sentenced to 18 years in prison for murder.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a fascinating, humorous and outrageous story that convincingly shows Spector as one of the true musical pioneers of 20th century music, a talent en par with Elvis, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, who has been shockingly condemned to spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he most probably did not commit, a sad, but perhaps not unfitting end for a legend of his stature. This is not only the story about the life of Phil Spector, but of the tragedies and triumphs of our pop culture. One hopes his appeals are successful.