The HBO original movie Phil Spector — a fictional account written by playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) — explores the relationship between Phil Spector (Al Pacino) and defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), who represented Spector during his 2007 trial for the killing of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003. Mamet examines the complicated personality that Phil Spector embodies: a brilliant but eccentric music producer who revolutionized pop music in the 1960s, and who in the years leading up to the murder trial lived as a virtual recluse in a mock castle in suburban Los Angeles. Phil Spector premieres Sunday, March 24, at 9pm ET.
Al Pacino and Helen Mirren are so convincing as the freaky music producer and his defense attorney that by the end of HBO’s Phil Spector it’s likely you would vote to acquit, based on reasonable doubt.
And that’s with the knowledge that Spector is in prison and has a gun fetish and a violent history.
David Mamet’s film unfolds in 2007, before Spector’s first trial. It was a second trial that resulted in Spector’s sentence of 19 years to life for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson, an actress.
Pacino becomes Spector, uncannily inhabiting the man who was born within four months of him and also raised in the Bronx. When we meet Spector, he is old, frail and shaking. It’s the twitches and the shuffle, the flares of temper and the clouded eyes that make for a spectacular performance.
“I would sit for hours just looking at Phil talking about things,” Pacino says at a press conference. “I was waiting for that moment where I could start to feel him in some way inside, to feel that — the subtext.”
We’re drawn into Spector’s bizarre world in a lonely castle, decorated with Lincoln memorabilia and guns. He shuffles around in silk pajamas and an embroidered robe, sporting different wigs — the first makes him look like a suburban woman in 1985, and the wig he wears on the day he takes the stand resembles the hair of a Dr. Seuss character.
Since people assume they know this case, what makes the film interesting is its vantage point, told from attorney Linda Kenney Baden’s perspective. This begins with a caveat that it’s fiction.
Spector’s attorney, Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor), hires Baden (Helen Mirren), and like everyone, she assumes he’s guilty. Spector is so weird that putting him on the stand will only reinforce the jury’s assumption of guilt.
Still, the forensic evidence does not support that he pulled the trigger.
“It’s an amalgam between a fantasy, a work of imagination, like a strange dream that you’re having and you’re not quite sure whether you really dreamt that or whether it actually happened,” Mirren says. “I think the nature of Phil Spector and the life that he lived encouraged that. He must have lived, it seems to me, in a permanent dream. I’ve heard so many extraordinary stories about him. Obviously we all did a lot of research. My husband actually worked for Phil Spector, so my husband had some incredible stories about him.”
Spector’s flashes of lucidity, though, are striking. His ego is so huge that it makes you wonder had he done it, if he would have taken credit.
Mamet wrote and directed this after seeing a documentary about Spector. “Oh, this guy’s a freak,” Mamet says he initially thought. “He’s small. He’s wizened. He talks funny. His arms are shaky. He’s obviously a freak. Three minutes later you say, ‘Well, but he says some interesting things.’ [After] half an hour, you’re saying, ‘How could I be so prejudiced? The guy’s kind of brilliant.’ And at the end of the documentary, you’re saying, ‘Wait a second. I came to this with such prejudice. Maybe the guy’s not guilty.’”
Photo: Credit: HBO/Phillip Caruso