The HBO movie Phil Spector is a production that demands attention because of the heavyweight names attached. First, of course, there’s the subject of the drama: Spector himself, the man who invented the “wall of sound,” and recorded hits for everyone from the Crystals, Darlene Love and Ike & Tina Turner to the Beatles and the Righteous Brothers. Oh, and who also went on trial, in 2007, for the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson. He claimed she shot herself with one of his many guns; the prosecution argued that he put the gun barrel in her mouth and pulled the trigger.
Then there are the names attached to this dramatization. Barry Levinson is the executive producer. David Mamet is both writer and director. Jeffrey Tambor plays the leading defense lawyer, Bruce Cutler, who brings in attorney Linda Kenney Baden as a last-minute co-counsel. Linda is played by Helen Mirren, and Al Pacino plays Phil Spector. Almost the entire movie focuses on those last two, with Linda trying to get to know Spector quickly while mounting a defense and assessing whether he should be put on the stand.
But what demands the most attention here, to me, isn’t the subject, or the production team, or the stars. It’s the opening disclaimer, written by Mamet as a preface to his story. I’ve been a TV critic for more than 35 years now, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Even though the movie based on actual people and concerns an actual event, here is the disclaimer to the movie called Phil Spector: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ … It is a drama inspired by actual persons on a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.”
Mamet may as well have written, “Don’t anybody sue us. I’m just making stuff up, using names and a few bits of court testimony that are in the public record.” Except if you look closely at the credits for this HBO “work of fiction,” you’ll find that Baden — the attorney played by Helen Mirren — serves as a consultant. So even though her exchanges with the real Phil Spector are protected by attorney-client privilege, you get the feeling — at least I do — that Mamet may not be winging it as much as he claims to be with that disclaimer. But take that disclaimer seriously — you can’t trust what you see in this HBO movie. You can, and should, enjoy it, though.
This Phil Spector telemovie, essentially, is a two-person play — an awkward dance between Linda and her eccentric client, as he reveals his shifting psychological states by jamming his mental gears between charming remarks, challenging questions and emotional rants. Pacino is an actor set at hurricane force here, and Mirren matches him by countering his fury with her calm. Mamet’s dialogue, as expected, is crisp and thought-provoking, and these two acting pros make the most of it.
In essence, Phil Spector reminds me of Fatal Vision, the famous 1984 miniseries about preparations for the murder trial of Jeffrey MacDonald. But even there, that story’s author, Joe McGinniss, eventually came down on one side and delivered his own verdict, even making himself a character in that drama. In the HBO movie Phil Spector, the only verdict comes at the end — when we’re told what the jury decided at the end of Spector’s days in court.
And after the movie is all over, I’m left with my final verdict as well. I may not believe a lot of what I see in HBO’s Phil Spector — but I’m certainly impressed and entertained by it.