My November 2010 film column for Maximum Rock N Roll. Originally appeared in issue 330 part 2.
"I always wanted to be in the background." - Phil Spector
To put it mildly Phil Spector is an interesting character. I am sure most will agree that the music he has produced still sounds great today. His wall of sound intrigued many musicians that they seemed to put up with his antics just to work with him. But those same antics make it hard for an average person to be able to relate to him.
The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector takes a different approach to Spector's life story. The main construct is an interview Spector gives during his trial for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson. The first trial ended in mistrial. The second one finds him convicted of the murder. The interview takes place between the two. Spector is relatively calm considering what the possible outcome could be. He even jokes that if he is convicted he will simply accept his role as boyfriend of one of the other convicts. He is amazingly honest even if he is completely full of himself. He compares himself to Galileo and da Vinci numerous times and has a seemingly out of nowhere contempt for Tony Bennett.
Interspersed with the interview are songs Spector produced and scenes from the courtroom. Music is what Spector is famous for so the inclusion in The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector makes sense. The filmmaker Vikram Jayanti shows on screen criticisms of Spector's production techniques while the songs play. In a more standard biography this would be expected. In this context it seems out of place. I keep wondering what speculation of guilt or innocence is attempted to be made. Does his musical production from the '60s hold any bearing on this case? The first song discussed is "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" which be rather obvious if Spector had written the song. He didn't. Gerry Goffin and Carole King did. He produced The Crystals performance of it. Although Spector makes it sound rather pretty, I have a hard time believing any relevance.
Spector never speaks in any of the courtroom scenes. Instead, he looks on solemnly while the lawyers argue the case. There is an occasional smile, but never one that seems over confident or antagonistic. Apart from his infamous wild curly hairdo that has been seen in so many pictures, Spector mostly looks normal and rather humble. He quietly listens to testimony. Fortunately, in the interview Jayanti asks about the hair. I was kind of surprised by Spector's answer.
The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector portrays that Spector was found guilty due to his arrogance. It is probably true. He is unlikable, cocky and delusional in the interviews. He makes preposterous statements like because he was able to hang out with both John Lennon and George Harrison he must be better than both of them. The evidence against him was flimsy, but it could be his image that led the jurors to their decision.
A friend asked me if The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector was a "good film." I had to really think about it, but I am not able to say it is. It is compelling. I did walk out the theater believing that Spector probably didn't murder Clarkson. Perhaps that was the point.
I adhere to a lot of the romantic visions of DIY culture. I know things can be (and should be) done outside of the mainstream. It bums me out to see my friends shilling for Scion, no matter how easily it is all justified. Todd P Goes To Austin follows a DIY show promoter Todd Parker as he puts on a few days of free shows at Ms. Bea's during the South By Southwest festival in Austin, TX. Although SXSW usually gives the impression of being a big industry schmooze fest others manage to take advantage of the chaos and put on their own shows outside of the official festival. Todd P is based in Brooklyn, but takes his organizational skills to Austin.
Todd P Goes To Austin starts off with Parker in his own neighborhood, putting on a show, dealing with lost keys, talking to the cops. He starts off by saying that an artist main focus is to not be boring. I wonder if any artist good or bad actually thinks that way. Well, maybe the bad ones. Of course, the good ones are the ones who aren't boring, who break away from the pack and do something creative. But I personally can't see someone starting out saying I must not be boring. I usually think that an artist just does things her/his way and then if it ends up being "not boring" they are successful.
Todd P and a few bands Matt and Kim, The Deathset and Mika Miko are all shown on their treks to Austin. There are shows along the way and of course the usual van troubles. At one point one band runs out of gas. Another gets a flat tire. Watching these events is annoying because although it could happen to anyone, you really wish bands would be more prepared when they go on tour. Having a spare tire, but no jack is just silly. Not knowing how to operate a gas canister is embarrassing.
When everyone finally makes it to Austin, the shows are a success. Such a success that Todd P is asked to do an "official" show for the festival. He agrees, but on his terms. I guess this is where Todd P Goes To Austin should have gone into some discussion about DIY versus the establishment or something like that. It doesn't come up. Both shows seem equally successful so I am left wondering why Parker felt the need to go in the direction. Perhaps it was to see if he could. Hopefully, now that he knows he'll stick with his old ways.
It is interesting to see a documentary focus on a promoter. Usually such behind-the-scenes people are largely ignored in the overall scheme even though we all know they are needed. The musicians are the glamorous ones and probably easier to make the subject of a documentary. Bands would probably rather concentrate on making the music and leave the logistics to others. Promoters especially seem to always get the short end of the stick. Because they are the ones collecting the money and paying the bands, inevitably someone always assumes they're getting ripped off.
From a purely DIY perspective I find it incredibly humorous that one of the quotes used on the back of the Todd P Goes To Austin DVD is from Urban Outfitters. Ahh, the irony. toddpgoestoaustin.com
I am always looking for films to review. If you made one, send a copy to Carolyn Keddy, PO Box 460402, San Francisco, CA 94146-0402. If your film is playing in the San Francisco Bay Area, let me know at email@example.com. I will go see it.