Published on April 9th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
Phil Spector 
Summary: Phil Spector is a well-acted drama that's unfair to its audience and the subjects depicted in its story. A clumsy fictionalization that won't make any friends on either side.
UR | 92 min.
Director: David Mamet | Screenplay: David Mamet
Starring: Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, Jeffrey Tambor
Network: HBO | Original Air Date: March 24, 2013
From the opening disclaimer of Phil Spector, I already felt I had been hoodwinked. Before a single scene of dialogue had run, an aggressive disclaimer covered the screen: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not based on a true story.”.
David Mamet’s 2013 made-for-HBO movie documenting (excuse me, fictionalizing) the murder trial of legendary record producer Phil Spector attempts to bargain with its audience before it’s even begun. This is certainly not the first time I’ve seen a disclaimer alerting me to take the following story with a grain of salt–but it’s the first time I was legitimately confused by such a warning.
So let me get this straight, the movie’s titled Phil Spector, its central character is Phil Spector, Linda Kenney Baden serves as his legal advisor (as she did in real life), the plot’s trial revolves around the death of struggling actress Lana Clarkson, and in the end Spector goes to prison?
…Yet, I’m expected to remember that this is all fiction?! There was more fiction in Zero Dark Thirty, and that film’s disclaimer read “based on first hand accounts of actual events”. My point is that it’s unfair to make a movie that looks, feels, and is styled as a work of non-fiction and simply tack on a disclaimer telling you it’s all bullshit at the opening.
David Mamet is one of the best American writers living today, he’s won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and has consistently spun original and engaging tales of despair in modern life. With Phil Spector, Mamet serves as both writer and director, so the blame for any faults will fall squarely on him. God knows I’m not going to blame the performers for this film’s shortcomings!
As Spector, Al Pacino continues to prove he’s as good as any screen actor alive. In recent years, we’ve seen Pacino do his trademark tough guy role (Righteous Kill), but what’s been exciting are the dramatic risks he continues to take as iconoclastic figures like Dr. Jack Kevorkian (You Don’t Know Jack) and now as Spector. As Kevorkian, Pacino was dialed-down and waiting to explode but as Spector, the actor shows the explosive intensity that made him a star in films like 1973’s Serpico. Meanwhile, his counterpart and legal counsel Linda Baden is played with class by the great Helen Mirren. Mirren, 67, continues to bunk the myth that there are no roles for actresses over 40 as she successfully portrays a woman 25 years her junior.
Pure and simple, I just felt this film was misleading. From the aforementioned disclaimer, Phil Spector‘s narrative aligns heavily with the record producer’s defense–hammering the audience over the head with the notion that Lana Clarkson pulled the trigger herself on that night in 2003. However, in aligning with Spector, the script also goes out of its way to make comparisons between he and a monster. There are numerous references to Spector’s home being a “castle” or “cave” and he’s even specifically labeled a “monster” by several characters. I’ll bet nobody from either side of this case is going to invite Mamet over for Thanksgiving anytime soon.
I was surprised that some of the dialogue exchanges seemed clumsy and unnecessary, especially one in the third act when Baden’s motivation in defending Spector is questioned by a total stranger, causing her to explain why she’s on his side–even though we’ve just spent the entire last hour understanding why she’s taken this job. Also, when Pacino rocks the infamous afro wig worn by Spector during the trial, there’s a well-acted moment between he and Mirren requiring zero words to explain the tension between them…but this is immediately followed by a five-minute conversation scene explaining everything.
As I previously wrote regarding this film’s disclaimer, I feel Mamet’s account is unfair to its viewers. If you’re going to go out of your way to tell us a movie is flat-out “fiction”, the least you can do is make it seem fictional by changing names, timelines, or outcomes. It all starts with a title, and this one shouldn’t have been called Phil Spector, it should have been called If He Did It: The (Mostly) True Story of the Lana Clarkson Murder Trial.