Phil Spector” (2013), the last film from writer-director David Mamet before what has become the longest filmmaking hiatus of his career, manages to be a compelling murder-trial biopic without digging as far into the case as one would assume. Mamet focuses on building a character portrait of legendary music producer Phil Spector (Al Pacino), someone who is brilliant, strange, mostly off-putting, occasionally terrifying, occasionally kind, and possibly murderous.
As for the legal drama side of the film – led by Jeffrey Tambor’s Bruce and Helen Mirren’s Linda as the defense attorneys – it’s actually pretty simple: It shows via forensic blood-spatter evidence that Spector probably didn’t kill the woman, Lana Clarkson, found dead in his home in 2003. Rather, she shot herself, perhaps accidentally. The early part of the film finds Bruce and Linda going around and around on this issue in the defense team’s war room: Spector most likely couldn’t have killed Lana, but California law doesn’t allow demonstrations based on theories; meanwhile, they know the prosecution will try Spector’s character, and if his character is on trial, he’ll lose.
None of the jurors are characters in “Phil Spector” – if memory serves, none are even shown on camera — but Mamet’s HBO-produced film condemns the jurors in this case (10 out of 12 found him guilty in the first trial, and all 12 in the retrial that sent him to prison for 19 years). Linda runs into a test juror in the hallway of the defense team’s HQ, and the test juror dismisses a scientific blood-spatter demonstration as “a cartoon.” And more than once, the defense team fears Spector is going to be found guilty as a makeup for the O.J. trail from a decade prior – a statement that the rich and powerful can’t get away with murder anymore.
The theme of people being put away for their character rather than the evidence is a surprising angle for “Phil Spector” to take – almost the opposite of my initial assumptions. The film starts with the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” and I thought perhaps the film would contrast the beautiful, timeless pop hits produced by Spector with the notion that he’s a killer. (My knowledge of the case was pretty much zero going into this.)
“Phil Spector” isn’t a glowing portrayal of the man by any means, but — with the forensics evidence exonerating him in a parallel thread — he comes off as a mix of sympathetic and pathetic thanks to the talents of Pacino. The actor is equally convincing playing the younger Spector in flashbacks – shooting a gun into the ceiling during a recording session for reasons known only to him — and the modern, broken-down recluse who occasionally shows that a spark remains.
While the producer’s accomplishments (most famously producing the Beatles and inventing the Wall of Sound) speak for themselves, Pacino plays Spector as an insecure man. He takes Linda through a tour of his mansion – which doubles as a museum of his career (and not a small museum). He pulls the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” off a record shelf and makes a redundant case for his legacy. In a mock test trial with “Redbelt’s” Chiwetel Ejiofor as the prosecutor, Spector goes off on a rant when they play a video of his ex-wife, Ronnie, speaking about Spector’s violent tendencies. Then he shows up for a key trial date with his hair styled in an Afro and a sweet expression on his face, clueless about optics.
Mamet’s film finds Spector guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of being a weirdo, but not guilty of the crime. In a country with far too many innocent people in prison (famously, it’s estimated that 4 percent of death-row inmates are innocent), Mamet argues that Spector is one of them, then lets us decide if we care or not, since the guy is no peach of a human being. This parallels with the implication that many jurors – and indeed all of them in the retrial — did not care about the evidence.
While “Phil Spector” has been criticized for being a pro-Spector piece by failing to provide a broader picture of the prosecution’s evidence, the screenplay (especially if removed from comparisons to the real-life case) makes a strong statement about the frightening flaws in the justice system and is a worthy platform for a bravura Pacino performance. I don’t know the reason for Mamet’s filmmaking hiatus, but it’s not because he has lost his touch.