Vikram Jayanti, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, 2008, still from a color film, 102 minutes.


LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY GNOMIC, the reclusive music producer Phil Spector had been out of the public eye for decades when he was arrested in 2003 for the murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson. Photographed in court sporting a mammoth Brillo pad of an Afro that threatened to topple his tiny frame, Spector seemed to be another in a long line of LA has-beens—O. J. Simpson and Robert Blake come to mind—who capped their careers with alleged execution-style killings. During his first trial, which ended in a hung jury in 2007, Spector appeared as emotionally distanced from the proceedings as Simpson and as dangerously eccentric as Blake. Through testimony, the jury learned that he had a fondness for firearms, which he often brandished at ex-girlfriends (as well as the Ramones). He was erratic and strange—a sad, twisted little man who hadn’t done anything of merit for years. No doubt that he pulled the trigger.

One of the chief virtues of this fascinating documentary is that it restores Spector to his proper place in music and cultural history, despite the tawdry tabloid conclusion of his life as a free man (he was convicted and sentenced to prison in 2009). Hardly a hagiography, it does not sidestep or skimp on the Clarkson murder—a good quarter of the film is trial footage from Court TV—but in getting hours of intimate interviews with Spector at home, just after the first trial, and mixing in copious vintage performance clips, producer-director Vikram Jayanti has done a great service, reminding generations who knew Spector only as a murderous freak (if they knew him at all) of his importance—and his humanity (he is surprisingly lucid and likable in the film).

From “Spanish Harlem” (1960), “He’s a Rebel,” (1962), and the dum-da-dum-cha intro of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (1963)—perhaps the most recognizable opening salvo in pop history—through the Beatles’ Let It Be (1970), George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (1970), and John Lennon’s Imagine (1971), with minor detours along the way like the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” (1963), the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” (1964), and Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep—Mountain High” (1966), among many others, Spector turned the recording studio itself into an instrument, piling on layers of orchestration while foregrounding odd percussion, particularly castanets.

He was the first practitioner of the 1950s rock ’n’ roll generation to take pop music seriously, likely giving it more weight than Cole Porter gave his own material. Known for his “wall of sound” technique, Spector pushed primitive four-track recording to its limits, using extreme compression and tape echo to make his productions peerlessly dense and as wide-screen as mono allowed. He was a massive influence, as well as a mentor and later a source of paranoid delusions, for Brian Wilson, who has played “Be My Baby” on his home jukebox every day of his life, still wondering how Spector got that sound. No Spector, no Pet Sounds. He salvaged the Beatles’ biggest mess (Let It Be) and produced Lennon’s and Harrison’s strongest solo work. In our pop present, where producers are as aesthetically and commercially crucial to a record’s success as performers, it’s easy to forget that Spector pioneered the concept of the producer-as-star, becoming the first music-business figure to reach the Hollywood director’s grail: the name above the title.

If Jayanti’s empathetic, psychologically penetrating film can be faulted, it’s for including flowery, overblown “critical texts” by Tearing Down the Wall of Sound author Mick Brown as subtitles while Spector classics play on the sound track. They distract not only from the music but also from the imagery on-screen, whether it’s trial footage, period performances, or Spector’s wan, contemplative face. The profundity of all of the above is clear enough. We don’t need to be told that a piece of early-’60s AM pop is a “masterpiece of chiaroscuro.” Otherwise, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a bracingly revealing portrait of a dark, complicated genius. It would fit right in with Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb (1994) and Jeff Feuerzeig’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006) in the imaginary PBS series “American Misfits.”

Andrew Hultkrans

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector plays June 30–July 13 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.