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With: Phil Spector
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Vikram Jayanti
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 102
Date: 10/13/2009

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

To Know Him

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In this unique documentary Phil Spector talks about how certain celebrities are forgiven for their transgressions, and others are not, almost arbitrarily. Spector has not been forgiven. Fortunately this documentary managed to capture him at a moment of openness, reflection and even anger, just before he was convicted for murder and jailed in 2009.

Directed by Vikram Jayanti (a producer on When We Were Kings), The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector gets some enviable footage of Spector in his own home -- planted in front of the piano on which John Lennon played "Imagine" -- as well as some candid 2007 courtroom footage (the result of which was a mistrial). Occasionally comments by rock critic Mick Brown appear in subtitles on the screen, although these are mostly ecstatic and rarely negative. Even more interestingly is that Jayanti plays Spector's most famous songs -- in their entirety -- over the courtroom scenes, giving both the scenes and the music an eerie new meaning.

Otherwise, Jayanti tracks a brief history of Spector's remarkable and unsung music career. It begins with the 1958 song "To Know Him Is to Love Him," performed by the Teddy Bears, of which Spector was a member. The girl singer makes it into a romantic ballad, but Spector actually wrote the song from his own point of view, for his father. Hearing it again in this context makes it incredibly powerful.

The film then moves onto the "girl groups," The Crystals and the Ronettes, and classic songs like "He's a Rebel," "Da Doo Ron Ron," and "Be My Baby." We hear from the Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner, and finally stories of The Beatles, George Harrison, and John Lennon. There are dynamic performances from many of these groups, though Spector insists that Tina Turner was his greatest find, a singer that could actually perform live. (It's shocking to learn that her groundbreaking song "River Deep, Mountain High" was a huge money-loser.) We hear brief tales of battles with Paul McCartney and admiration by John Lennon and Brian Wilson. (Sadly the movie doesn't go as far as Spector's association with the Ramones, or, more recently, with Starsailor.)

The best thing about this film capturing Spector at such a volatile time in his life is that he's fairly candid. He's angry, boastful, hurt, and full of regrets and loss. The movie isn't interested in whether or not Spector is a murderer, but it gives him a chance to clear the air, and perhaps find a moment of peace for himself.

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