Phil Spector’s Greatest Hit

Al Pacino plays the notorious record producer in David Mamet's "fictional" HBO movie that has both sides on the murder trial crying foul

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Phillip V. Caruso / HBO

“Based on a true story.” That phrase, which gives a dramatist the license to toy with facts in search of a larger meaning, must go back to Euripides. A millennium or so of Passion Plays adapted the Jesus story to local customs and prejudices. Shakespeare’s history plays were often as much fiction as chronicle; any descendants of Richard III must still be pissed at the liberties the Bard took in relating the life of the last Plantagenet king. This year’s Oscar contenders included a trio of American history lessons — Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo — whose accuracy was challenged by interest groups. HBO has also stoked controversy with its veritable minigenre of political docudramas: Recount, Too Big to Fail, Game Change and the like. The pay channel was happy to take the flack along with the high ratings and Emmy awards.

David Mamet’s sinfully entertaining Phil Spector — a new HBO movie, premiering Sunday, set during the legendary record producer’s first trial for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson — plays a saucy variation on the claims of a fact-based biopic. Here’s what the Pulitzer-winning playwright (for Glengarry Glen Ross), who is also a noted screenwriter (The Verdict, The Untouchables, Wag the Dog) and writer-director (House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Heist), proclaims in the movie’s opening statement: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.”

Huh? Al Pacino recognizably depicts Spector, who spouts the highlights of an extraordinary career producing some of the signature songs of the ’60s, and sports more fright wigs than Imelda Marcos had gaudy shoes. Linda Kenney Baden, Spector’s attorney in the first of his two trials, is less well-known than her client (she also defended Casey Anthony and basketball star Jayson Williams); and Helen Mirren is not so much a physical double for Kenney Baden as Bette Midler, the original choice for the role, would have been. But Mirren is plausibly that character: the skeptic turned passionate advocate, and the viewer’s sensible surrogate. Kennedy Baden served as a consultant on the Mamet picture — apparently, miraculously, without violating attorney-client confidentiality. Another consultant was Vikram Jayanti, the documentary filmmaker whose long Spector interview, in the 2009 The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, provided Mamet with prime source material.

(READ: Gilbert Cruz on Phil Spector and his two trials)

The names in the HBO movie are the same — he’s not called Bill Schmecter — as are the verifiable incidents: Spector’s firing a loaded pistol during a record session, the testimony of women that he held them in his Alhambra mansion at gunpoint. Other real people, including Clarkson and Ronnie Bennett, lead singer of the Ronettes and Spector’s aggrieved ex-wife, are portrayed and, through Mamet’s words and Pacino’s mouth, offhandedly vilified. So if the Phil Spector in Phil Spector isn’t the Phil Spector, who is he?

Music consumers who weren’t kids in the 1960s may have a question of their own: Who is Phil Spector? He is, was, the most gifted and distinctive producer in the history of pop-rock. Born in 1939, he had a No. 1 hit at 18 with “To Know Him Is to Love Him” (inspired by his father, who committed suicide when Phil was nine). By the time he was 20 he had co-written “Spanish Harlem” with Jerry Leiber. Then he created the Wall of Sound, that dense sonic fusion of joy and torment that seemed to emerge from some teen cathedral to blast the buttons off of your AM car radio. Savor the titles: “He’s a Rebel,” “Be My Baby,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” “River Deep, Mountain High.”

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector)

The first producer more famous than his singers, Spector was limned as “the tycoon of teen” in 1965 by the young Tom Wolfe. And the impact of those amazing singles lingered through the decades. The hero of Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play The Real Thing was speaking for many Spector fans when he proclaimed “that the Righteous Brothers’ recording of ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” on the London label was possibly the most haunting, the most deeply moving noise ever produced by the human spirit.”

But all things must pass in pop music, and Spector hit his peak nearly a half-century ago — as distant from today as Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was from 1963. What members of the digital generation can be expected to remember the seven-inch vinyl records on which Spector pressed what he called his “little symphonies for the kids”? In the Mamet movie, Kenney Baden asks a young lawyer to identify the 45 rpm record she’s holding. “Something to do with an early computer,” he guesses.

Who still reveres Phil Spector? Mamet’s Phil Spector. “The Jews didn’t invent the music business,” he tells Linda. “I invented the music business.” (Actually, Jewish songwriters like Berlin, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin pretty much invented the 20th-century pop song. And Spector, like the Brill Building youngsters who wrote most of the singles he produced, is Jewish.) Speaking of his girl groups — The Crystals, The Ronettes — he boasts that “I put black America in the white home.” (No again. Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and many other black vocalists were recording Gershwin and Kern songs in the 1920s and ’30s. Leiber and his producing partner Mike Stoller wrote some golden 1950s hits for the Coasters. And at Motown Records, the African-American Berry Gordy produced a raft of R&B artists before Spector got revved up.) On his tussle with Paul McCartney over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” single that Spector produced, he says, “I was proved right.” All right, that one’s a matter of opinion.

(READ: Corliss’s obit on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriter Jerry Leiber)

Some people who knew Spector or Clarkson already have a strong opinion about Mamet’s movie. They think that his portrayals of the accused and the victim, whether meant to be factual or fictitious, will be taken as real, and defamatory. “We fear that he will rewrite history and portray Lana Clarkson as responsible for her own death,” Edward Lozzi, a former White House staffer who speaks for victims’ rights groups, said in a comment reported in The Guardian. “That is not acceptable, and if he does so, there will be consequences from us.” (Translation: We’ll find to a way to keep Phil Spector from sweeping the Emmys the way Game Change did.) Rachelle Spector, the defendant’s wife since 2006, is just as steamed. “During the trials,” she told Entertainment Tonight, “they characterized him as a monster… [The film’s producers also] have him as a foul-mouthed megalomaniac, and they depict him as a Minotaur, like he draws people into his labyrinth and he locks them in and won’t let them out.”

If Mamet can antagonize both sides, he may be doing something right. And any outside outrage is just free publicity. But Mamet’s main point is that he’s just speculating, as he did in his bio-pics of Jimmy Hoffa and Meyer Lansky — and, you know, like Shakespeare did. For all the bustle we see at the trial, and at the offices of Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor), Spector’s defense attorney, who hires Linda to take over the final portion of the case, the movie is at heart a two-hander, a conversation between the defendant and his new lawyer. “We’re in the realm of conjecture,” Mamet has said. “What could have happened in the part that you didn’t see?” That’s a good question. Did he think to ask Kenney Baden, his consultant?

(READ: Corliss’s obit on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriter Jerry Leiber)

In fact — if that phrase can even be used about Phil Spector —  the movie does argue for reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused. It gives much weight to ballistics tests indicating that if Spector had been close enough to Clarkson to put a gun in her mouth and pull the trigger, his white coat would have been fully drenched, not slightly spattered, in her blood. The film also suggests that Spector might have been acquitted if he’d taken the stand in his own defense, but that he wore a preposterous blond Afro wig to court that morning (as “a homage to Jimi Hendrix,” Pacino’s Spector says) and Linda deemed it unwise to have him testify. Essentially, according to Mamet, the outcome of the trial hinged on a bad hair day.

No question that the playwright-director also brings a fond, ruthless vigor to portrays Spector as a nut case. And a gun nut — he tells Linda, on her first trip to the mansion, that “I couldn’t keep you here by force, ’cause they took all my guns.” Mamet also draws deeply on the Minotaur legend, ending his movie with the lines, “Why does the Minotaur live in a cave?” “To keep himself from doing harm.” But the main reference point is Psycho. On the rainy night when Linda visits Spector, she finds the mansion outfitted like the creepy house above the Bates Motel: stuffed owls, old wallpaper, sepulchral lighting and tremulous violins to screech as she is startled by her own reflection in a mirror. When Spector enters, in full rant against the Kennedy family, it’s as if Linda is confronting not Norman Bates but his dead, dotty mother. (Did Rachelle Spector realize she was evoking the last line of Psycho when she said, in her husband’s defense, “This guy couldn’t harm a fly”?)

Spector’s unforgivable crime, in Mamet’s eyes, is that he was famous — notorious — in Los Angeles, whose legal system had been humiliated by the botched prosecutions of Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake. Linda’s first opinion of the jury: “They will be trying him for the murder of O.J.’s wife, and they will find him guilty.” Nick Stavros (John Pirruccello), an ex-LAPD detective on Cutler’s staff, predicts a verdict based on the jurors’ animosity toward a gun-crazy guy in a Rip Taylor wig: “He’s a freak. They’re gonna convict him of I-just-don’t-like-you.”

(READ: Jeffrey Ressner’s report on the Spector-Clarkson case)

There was a lot not to like about Spector, who lacked both the gleaming celebrity and the performance skills of Jackson, Simpson and Blake. His very presence in the courtroom made him Exhibit A for the prosecution. Wandering around in flip-flops inside the haunted mansion of his mind, Spector was unable to peek outside and realize how peculiar, untrustworthy, guilty he would look to others. He could dominate and domineer musicians in a recording studio, once upon a time, but he couldn’t charm 12 people on a 2007 jury into believing his story. It took a masterly summation by Kenney Baden to persuade two of those 12 jurors to vote not guilty, resulting in a mistrial. Jurors in the second, 2009 trial, on which Kenney Baden was unable to consult due to illness, convicted him of second-degree murder. Spector, 73, is serving a 19-year sentence in the minimum-security California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran — which, according to last week’s National Enquirer, doesn’t get HBO.

That’s a pity, because even Phil Spector might enjoy Phil Spector — not least for the movie’s sharing of his opinion that he was the greatest at two things: making records and scaring people. Pacino often thinks over-the-top is the platform from which a performance is meant to ascend; and there are times when his Spector seems a mix of the Big Boy Caprice character he played in Dick Tracy and Adam Sandler doing Pacino. But it’s huge, pestilential fun to watch. Filmed as a spectral figure that darkens any room it enters, this Spector struts and spumes like Peter Sellers’ Clare Quilty — another pernicious madman, though not a murderer — in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film of Lolita. And Pacino’s two big rants, at the mansion and during a mock cross-examination that drives him to rage, are arias worthy of Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It’s a horror-pathos performance that both dares viewers to laugh and invites them to live inside the madness.

Pacino bounces off the walls of Mirren’s canny stolidity. Calling Spector “Philip,” as his mother did, Linda offers him the tough love of a lion queen. “You might want to trust me,” she says, “because I’m the last person who both, A, believes in you, and, B, has the power to help your case.” Eventually Spector finds the rare soul he can connect to, telling Linda, “I met a lotta crazy people in my life. I met very few sane ones — that I could talk to.” By the end, Mirren has seized the film’s focus, as the nagging voice of reasonable doubt in the viewer’s head. In this Beauty and the Beast update (without the love-story element), she is the heroine with the fortitude not just to walk into the Minotaur’s cave but to stroke its strange mane as it licks its wounds, and roars.

(READ: Corliss on Helen Mirren in The Queen)

“He’s a genius,” Tambor’s Cutler says of Spector. “He transformed the entire music industry.” But plenty of geniuses have walked on the sociopathic side. William S. Burroughs shot and killed his wife. The superb French novelist Céline collaborated with the Nazis and denounced the Jews. Modern pop music is populated with so many deranged personalities that abnormality is very nearly the norm. So Spector fits both the wilder contours of his profession and the romantic theory that madness begets genius, or vice versa. But Mamet isn’t copping a plea for the eccentric artist. He’s saying that even a weird dude with a bad rep deserves a fair trial.

“They say I’m standoffish,” Spector tells Linda. “I’m not standoffish. I’m inaccessible.” Inaccessibility may have been the lure for Mamet: to go on his own Minotaur hunt, find the beast and mythologize him. Less a case history than a finely detailed, expertly illustrated cartoon — and, to take the author at his word for a moment, a kind of true-crime fiction — Phil Spector may not please Spector’s friends, foes and victims. But it is surely is Mamet’s strongest drama in ages, and a seductive, devious essay on the tortured celebrity soul.