A film review by Craig J. Koban March 27, 2013



2013, no MPAA rating, 92 mins.

Phil Spector: Al Pacino / Linda Kenney Baden: Helen Mirren / Bruce Cutler: Jeffrey Tambor / Dr. Spitz: Matt Malloy

Written and directed by David Mamet

So very few in the entertainment business have attained so much in life only to fall so resoundingly far as much as Phil Spector did.  

He was, for the uninitiated, a revered American record producer and sound designer that made many pioneering efforts in the latter that revolutionized the industry.  As a producer, there’s almost no one that he did not work with: he collaborated with everyone from Ike and Tina Turner to the Ramones to the Beatles (he produced “Let It Be”).  He's responsible for an unfathomable 25 Top 40 hits between 1960 to 1965 and co-wrote the Righteous Brothers’ iconic “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”  He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.  

Everything came crashing down to a screeching halt for Spector in February of 2003, when actress Lana Clarkson was found dead of a gunshot wound in his mansion.  Spector was charged with second-degree murder, which he has always maintained was an “accidental suicide” when she was “kissing” the gun.  Despite circumstantial evidence – the jacket he apparently wore during the shooting exhibited very little, if any, bloodstains – Spector’s past indiscretions with women (including multiple past incidents of pulling guns on them) and his overall peculiar and eccentric behavior were ultimately held against him.  He was convicted in 2009 after a series of trials and is currently serving a 19-year prison sentence.  He will not be eligible for parole until he is a ripe 88-years-old. 

HBO Film’s PHIL SPECTOR deals – albeit in a surprisingly   fleeting and haphazard manner – with the initial trial itself (the first trial resulted in a hung jury, but he was convicted during the second one).  Those expecting a rather lengthy and detailed expose-biography on the man’s life and/or a thrilling and absorbing court room thriller may be setting themselves up for massive disappointment.  PHIL SPECTOR is a short film (barely over 90 minutes) and suffers from a bit of a scattershot focus that never seems to precisely hone in on what kind of story it really wants to tell.  Yet, where it really shines is in exploring the problematic attorney/client relationship between Spector and his attorney, Linda Kenney Baden, a former federal prosecutor.  Oh, the film also elevates itself beyond its faults by having Al Pacino and Helen Mirren as the two respective leads, not to mention writer/director David Mamet is at the helm quarterbacking everything behind the scenes. 



Mamet lays out his intentions rather specifically with a odd title card that this reality based drama is a “work of fiction” and that it’s “not based on a true story” (ummm….okay).  The script more or less deals with the build-up and lead-in to the first trial of the legendary producer.  The most compelling sections of the film are the early scenes where we see Baden (Mirren) come to Spector’s (Pacino) home, which is dark, drab, ominously lit, and seems as positively decked out with years worth of collectibles the same way Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu was (Spector has everything in his home from stuffed owls to portraits of Abraham Lincoln to multiple firearms).  The outlandish surroundings pale in comparison to the film’s reveal of the even more bizarre Spector himself; on top of his outlandish attire, he seems to be a man of narcissistic pride, vanity, compulsion, and deeply unsettling paranoia.  

The running theme throughout the film is that poor Baden has her work seriously cut out for her.  She understands, almost from upon her first meeting with the man, that her case to defend him will easily be lost on the perception of his image alone.  Mamet’s script – which has been chastised by victim's rights groups and members of the Clarkson family – has been heavily criticized for portraying Spector as a pathetic victim of circumstance that was put away for essentially being disliked and considered weird.  There is some weight, I think, to the film’s claims: Forensic evidence of Spector’s clothing on the night of the murder refute him being close enough to Clarkson to have shot the gun, not to mention that what he told his chauffeur just after her death (“I think I killed somebody”) has – at least according to the accused – been taken out of context or misquoted.  

This is not to say that the film paints Spector as wholly sympathetic or even likeable for that matter.  No, the title character here is almost megalomaniacal in his egotism (“The Jews didn’t invent the music business...I did,” he reveals in one of many grandstanding and hyperbolic boasts in the film).  If anything, I believe that Mamet wants to portray Spector as his own victim, so to speak: In the film’s climax, we see him decked out in a hilariously over-the-top Afro wig (amazingly, he never confesses to wearing “wigs”) and flamboyant attire for what would be the day of his testimony.  Baden, realizing that the jury will ultimately judge a book by its ludicrous cover, decided not to put him on the stand.  She realizes that – at this stage in the game – Spector would be proven guilty regardless of the evidence. 

Pacino - who worked with Mamet before on GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS – seems kind of born to harness the Pulitzer Prize winner’s dialogue.  The role requires Pacino to display his full arsenal of rambunctious and crazed…Pacino-isms…that is crucial to adequately imbue Spector’s limitless arrogance and self-importance.  The film is always engaging and perversely mesmerizing when Pacino is on screen here, but I gravitated more towards Mirren’s soft spoken, low key, and thoughtful performance as the attorney with the thankless and impossible task of trying to get this old coot off.  Her calm, collected, and pragmatic stoicism is an effective dramatic foil to the full-on scenery-chewing outbursts of Pacino.  Part of the sinful pleasure of PHIL SPECTOR is to see this odd couple work so well on camera off of one another. 

And, yes, the film is a work of drama, which takes massive liberties with facts, events, and so forth (then again, what films inspired by facts have not?).  Personally, where Mamet lost me was in how narratively unhinged the film is, which might have been intentionally done to reflect Spector’s mindset.  The plot is jarring, makes peculiar detours, and leads to a promise of an enthralling ending, only to just abruptly conclude without exploring the trial further (it lets lazily obligatory end title cards do the explaining).  PHIL SPECTOR is not among the finest HBO Films that I’ve seen, and if you’re looking for a far more enriching one that also stars Pacino then look no further than his turn as Jack Kevorkian in YOU DON’T KNOW JACK.  

Yet, the very presence of Pacino and Mirren alone – both on top of their respective games - in PHIL SPECTOR proves to be endlessly captivating, not to mention that Mamet at least deserves some props for not taking an easier-to-digest, road-most-traveled position on portraying Spector himself.  All in all, and regardless of where you fall on Spector’s innocence or guilt, the film paints a stimulating portrait of one bizarre man’s tragic inability to grasp the severity of his situation and how he handled his appearance in the public eye.  If anything, Phil Spector in PHIL SPECTOR was definitely guilty of being in love with his own image and status, both of which were not enough to save him from decades-spanning incarceration.


CrAiGeR's other

Film Reviews:


RECOUNT  (2008 jjjj


TAKING CHANCE  (2009 jj1/2


TEMPLE GRANDIN  (2010 jjjj




YOU DON'T KNOW JACK  (2010 jjjj




CINEMA VERITE  (2011 jj1/2


GAME CHANGE  (2012) jjj




THE GIRL  (2012) jj




CLEAR HISTORY  (2013) jjj



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