Phil Spector: TV movie
* * * *
9 p.m. Sunday, HBO
The question of whether famed music producer Phil Spector killed struggling actress Lana Clarkson is secondary in HBOs Phil Spector. The film, written and directed by David Mamet, is only about a murder trial the way Glengarry Glen Ross is only about real estate.
Mamet is on his game in Phil Spector, airing Sunday night, but so is every member of his cast, including Al Pacino as Spector and Helen Mirren as attorney Linda Kenney Baden. One of the reasons Phil Spector is so engaging is the chance to watch these two acting titans work to the full extent of their powers.
HBO insists the film is not a dramatization of Spectors first trial for the 2003 death of actress Lana Clarkson, but rather, that actual events and people inspired the film.
Thats Mamets way of buying a permissive license to interpret and, frankly, to create characterizations that explore much more than whether Clarkson put a gun in her mouth that night at Spectors home and pulled the trigger, or whether Spector did the deed.
Suffering from an ever-worsening cold, Kenney Baden arrives at the sparsely furnished temporary offices set up in Los Angeles by attorney Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) as defense headquarters for Spectors first trial. At best, she thinks Spectors crazy but tries to remain agnostic about his guilt or innocence. Summoned to Spectors house, she goes alone in the rain through the barbed-wire gates and into a labyrinth of rooms and hallways. Each overstuffed room seems to have a theme one room is devoted to Lincoln memorabilia, another set up like a carnival with an assortment of swords and knives, yet another contains a jail cell and a wall decorated with silhouettes of the guns removed by the cops after Clarksons death.
Finally, she finds herself at three doors. The left one opens inward, the right one opens outward, and the one in the middle may be trompe loeil. The place is a cross between a haunted mansion and a set designed by Magritte.
Mirrens walk through the partially lighted rooms represents the films thematic descent into Spectors mind. Whatever she thinks about him at the beginning will change as she goes deeper into what makes him tick.
As Mirrens character moves from room to room, we anticipate the moment when she and Pacino will be in the same scene together. When it happens, its almost comic at first, this small, doddering and rambling man with a blond wig, seeming at first to confirm that hes clearly a nut case who must have killed Clarkson.
Kenney Baden assesses how to get the jury to find Spector something other than a freak. With Cutler often away to work on other cases, Kenney Baden assumes more and more control of the defense, trying to find a plausible alternative scenario for the night of Clarksons death.
Although Mamet structures Phil Spector like a legal thriller, with the look and feel of Raymond Chandler, the film isnt about guilt or innocence. As Kenney Baden tries to find a way to get a jury to like the bewigged creator of the fabled Wall of Sound, we are forced to reconsider whatever opinions we might have about Spectors culpability. Our minds have been opened by Mamets deeper purpose of exploring the nature of prejudice and superficial opinions based on minimal information.
The more we get to know Pacinos Spector, the more transparent his braggadocio becomes. He almost sounds desperate when he bellows, I invented the music business.