“Phil Spector,” starring Al Pacino as the titular music producer and Helen Mirren as Linda Kenney Baden, premiered on HBO on Sunday. Reviews of the film, directed by David Mamet ("Glenngarry Glen Ross"), cite great performances by Pacino and Mirren, though many critics are taking the movie to task for its portrayal of the trial and the evidence against Spector.
“Phil Spector” does not set out to recall each moment of the case against Spector, highlighting evidence presented by the prosecution and defense and framing it with the odd courtroom appearances of the famed music producer, who produced the Beatles' "Let It Be," the Ronettes and The Ramones, and his known for his signature "wall of Sound" production style. “Phil Spector,” instead, focuses on the titular character and his third attorney, Kenney Baden, during the first of two trials for the murder of Lana Clarkson.
The Hollywood Reporter’s review of the movie says Mamet handles several difficult obstacles in bringing Spector’s trial to life, including the multitude of outrageous wigs worn by the producer during the trial. Much of that has to do with Pacino’s performance, which THR calls “compelling.”
The other extremely difficult thing that “Phil Spector” has to tackle is the facts. The movie is based on an actual case involving real people and the death of Clarkson in Spector’s home. It aired with a title screen: “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 comment upon the trial or its outcome,” which THR notes is problematic when using real life as the basis of a movie.
With the disclaimer, Mamet undermines the biopic and true crime story of Spector according to THR. “Phil Spector,” instead, has to focus on the great performance of Pacino as it tries to present a case of reasonable doubt. Through the movie, Baden tries to present the death of Clarkson as an accident, not a suicide or a murder, as Spector yelled at the “depressed actress” to take the gun out of her mouth.
THR's review continues: “Loaded with enough to satisfy those who believe Spector did it, as Mirren’s role is written and Pacino’s performance hints at, the film seems eager to suggest Spector was found guilty mostly of being a freak.”
Variety also notes problems with how “Phil Spector” is presented, most notably its fictional take as well as its lack of backstory. Despite good performances, Variety says the movie “is essentially a Lifetime movie gussied up with an Oscar pedigree and F-bombs.”
Other questions about “Phil Spector” have less to do with the movie and with the facts presented over the course of its 90-minute runtime. Harriet Ryan, writing for Los Angeles Times, covered both of the Spector trials, the first being a mistrial while the second found Spector guilty of murdering Clarkson, notes numerous flaws with the movie. According to Ryan, “Phil Spector” presents the prosecution’s case as nothing more than circumstantial evidence, with ballistics, and bloodstains, clearly proving Spector’s innocence. Ryan says that, instead of just four little drops of blood on Spector’s white dinner jacket, there were “Tiny mist-like spots near the lapel that, according to expert testimony, put Spector no more than three feet from Clarkson's face when the gun went off.” A similar stain was found on Clarkson’s wrist, suggesting a defensive position at the time of the shooting.
Questions about the chauffeur’s statement were never brought up by Spector’s attorneys in either trial. “Phil Spector” also fails to mention that there were five attorneys that handled Spector’s case. And the testimonies of the five women who accused Spector of pointing a gun at them were only briefly mentioned and not presented accurately, notes Ryan.
In the end, “Phil Spector” has people divided, notes Reuters. Some point to the factual inaccuracies, including the fact that Spector’s present wife, who attended each of the trials and styled his wigs, was never mentioned, while others note strong performances.