D: David Mamet / 92m
Cast: Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, Jeffrey Tambor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rebecca Pidgeon, John Pirruccello, James Tolkan, David Aaron Baker, Matt Malloy
In the aftermath of the death of actress Lana Clarkson at the home of legendary music producer Phil Spector (Pacino), his defence attorney, Bruce Cutler (Tambor) persuades Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren), another attorney, to help with the case and the upcoming trial. Baden is convinced at first that Spector is guilty and that the case can’t be won. Her opinion begins to change when she meets Spector for the first time at his home. Spector’s rambling, paranoid arguments in support of his innocence leave their mark on Baden, and she endeavours to find a way of combating the public’s view of Spector as a “freak”. She dismisses attacking the victim, or any of the other women who have come forward to claim that the producer also threatened them with a gun at his home. Instead, she focuses on the discrepancies that she finds in the ballistics report: principally that if Spector did shoot Clarkson by putting a gun in her mouth and pulling the trigger, why wasn’t he covered in her blood?
As Baden persists in her efforts to have simulations of the gunshot entered as evidence at the trial, Spector becomes impressed by her tenacity and places his trust in her and her instincts. Meanwhile, disturbing evidence continues to be uncovered that points to Spector’s unhealthy interest in guns and his volatile anger. Baden perseveres with the ballistics evidence but finds that the only way she can introduce it into the trial is by putting Spector on the stand. To prepare him, she puts him through a mock cross-examination, but Spector reacts badly when shown videotaped accusations of abuse by his ex-wife. The next day, Spector’s arrival at the trial causes a stir that leads Baden to question whether her decision to let him testify was too hasty…
Opening with the disclaimer that Phil Spector is a work of fiction based around the true events of the record producer’s trial for murder in 2007, the movie charts what may have happened behind the scenes both with the man himself and his defence team. It’s a bold, heavily stylised approach, and one that allows for a great deal of conjecture to be indulged in. Spector’s guilt or innocence is debated but the script by David Mamet never comes down on one side or the other (even if it seems to be saying that he couldn’t have done it because of the lack of blood spatter); instead it presents the evidence that was available at the time, and backs it up with references to the trial itself and how it was conducted. From this it’s up to the viewer to decide if Spector was guilty or not.
Taking such dramatic licence, the movie could easily be accused of being pure fabrication but it has input from the real Linda Kenney Baden, and so its authenticity is more credibly established. The nuts and bolts of the defence team’s efforts to find a way of getting Spector acquitted are often quietly intense, and are offset against the more sensational reporting of the trial itself (seen through both contemporary footage and scenes set outside the courthouse). And then there’s Spector himself, a vain, arrogant, irrational, and lonely figure (as presented here) who may or may not be the real victim. Mamet’s script allows the man several chances to express his views on the world, and the press, and fame, and his own self-importance, and it’s in these moments that the movie most draws in the viewer, as the apparent depth of Spector’s dissociation from “normal” society is revealed, and the script paints him as too egotistical to fully understand just how his behaviour and demeanour are detrimental to his defence.
It’s a powerhouse performance from Pacino, mesmerising and enthralling, his distinctive vocalising fitting a character who declaims as much as he discusses. Looking out from under a succession of wigs – including the “tribute to Jimi Hendrix” wig he wore on the day he was due to testify – Spector is portrayed as a man with serious psychological issues allied to an unhealthy disregard for those around him; he only takes to Baden because she believes in his innocence. Pacino chews the scenery as much as he ever does, but here it suits the larger than life personality that Spector forged for himself, and the actor applies himself to Mamet’s florid dialogue with undisguised glee. As the quieter, but no less passionate Baden, Mirren puts in an award-winning performance that serves as the perfect balance to Pacino’s more grandiose approach, and in doing so, is so impressive that she steals the limelight from Pacino with ease. Her no-nonsense attitude and glowering disposition speaks volumes throughout, and Baden’s patience with Spector, and her ability to “manage” him, highlights the sound judgment Bruce Cutler made by hiring her in the first place. When the two are together on screen it’s nothing short of hypnotic to watch.
The supporting cast flesh out their roles with aplomb, and the recreation of events surrounding the trial is skilfully done – though the lighting is gloomy throughout the whole movie, as if the subject matter is ultimately too depressing to deal with. Mamet directs his script in a deliberate, TV-movie-of-the-week style that actually seems appropriate to the material, and he cleverly manages to blur the distinctions between what actually happened the night Clarkson died, and what may have happened. It’s a neat trick, and it makes the movie a more intriguing watch than you might expect.
Rating: 8/10 – an absorbing and unexpectedly gripping account of the downfall of a music industry legend, Phil Spector is sharp, intelligent, and features two hugely impressive performances from its lead actors; at its heart, a powerful insight into how one man’s insularity and overwhelming self-belief can lead to their eventual downfall.