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Monday, September 23, 2013

'Phil Spector:' David Mamet's Behind the Music

Phil Spector (HBO)
It seems highly improbable that Warner Archive releasing the HBO biopic "Phil Spector" one week before last week's DVD release of the HBO biopic "Behind the Candelabra" is coincidental. (Unreal TV's May 2103 review of "Candelbra" points out a significant similarity between Liberace and Newt Gingrich.) Both made-for-its-not-TV productions present unflattering (but perhaps accurate) portrayals of two former entertainment industry giants at low points in their lives and careers.

"Spector" and "Candelabra" additionally have auteurs behind them. Playwright David Mamet writes, directs, produces, (and perhaps provides craft services for) "Spector." Steven Soderbergh directs "Candelabra."

The parallels extend as well to the tone of  the stars' negative (but perhaps accurate) portrayals of their subject.

Al Pacino's Phil Spector is a highly erratic and ghoulish appearing (of course pun intended) specter (of course pun intended) who has much more in common with Ratso Rizzo of "Midnight Cowboy" than music producer Simon Cowell, who is the current successor to the real-life Spector's throne as the king of the music producers. Michael Douglas portrays Liberace as a caricature of a mincing aging queen who is so light in the loafers that he likely needs weights in his shoes to avoid floating to the ceiling.

The personal crisis around which "Spector" revolves is aspiring actress Lana Clarkson, who apparently is no relation to Cowell discovery Kelly Clarkson, sustaining a fatal bullet to her skull while visiting Spector's home and in his presence. "Liberace" tells the tales of "Mr. Showmanship's" relationship with the decades-younger Scott Thorson near the end of the older man's life.

One difference is that "Spector" lacks any memorable lines. Most people who watch "Candelabra" will never forget Liberace saying that he does not want to be remembered as "an old queen" or a separate scene in which Thorson angrily states "so its only repugnant when I do it to you."

"Spector" opens in the war room of the team of attorneys who Spector hired to defend him in the upcoming murder trial regarding the death of Lana.

As an aside, it is nice to see Jeffrey Tambor in the role of lead attorney Bruce Cutler. Tambor deserves a role that provides some dignity after playing a long series of buffons ranging from Jeffrey Brookes in "The Ropers" in the late '70s to his current role as George Bluth, Sr. in "Arrested Development."

The attention in the war room quickly turns to newly arrived miracle worker attorney Linda Kenney Baden, played by the enormously talented Helen Mirren. This role helps validate the theory that Mirren can play anything.

Aside from the usual challenge of preventing the prosecution from proving that their criminal defendant did not commit the offense with which he was charged, Spector's team faces the double hurdles of being haunted (of course pun intended) by the  negative public opinion regarding the O.J. verdict in O.J.'s criminal trial and having a client whose intensely quirky behavior and equally odd appearance greatly hinder the competition for the hearts and minds of the jury. This is not to mention Spector's reputations for holding women against their wills and for being a gun nut.

Overcoming this challenge requires that Baden spend extended periods in Spector's house, which matches his personality very well. The tacky and macabre Victorian-style decor, complete with creepy portraits, is very reminiscent of the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disney World.

Mirren does an awesome job communicating Baden's frustration regarding struggling to get Spector to at least not act contrary to his own best interest if she cannot get him to actually improve his chances of a favorable outcome. Mirren does equally well conveying Baden's serious illness that blooms into pneumonia.

These scenes between Baden and Spector are only the side dish to the entree that is the real message of "Spector," which is that winning in court requires that attorneys make an adequately entertaining presentation out of the evidence that favors their clients.

In the Spector case, this showmanship necessitates simulating the details of the fatal shooting in a manner both that the jury can understand and that shows that there is no way that Spector pulled the trigger. Merely having a respected expert testify is not adequately flashy.

This message of the reality-show aspect of any high-level civil or criminal trial is an apt commentary on how our legal system currently operates. It seems that we are not far away from having Judge Judy preside over a real-life trial of someone whose best days are long ago and far away.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, is of Mamet's discussion of the making of "Spector" from a special feature in the film.

The final verdict regarding "Spector" is that its nicely paced and well-produced telling of a story that is a voyeur's dream make it a good DVD to add to your collection.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Spector" or "Candelabra" is welcome to email me. You can also follow me on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.