Writing a review on a biopic is never easy, but writing a review on a biopic about a convicted real-life murderer told from the killer’s point of view might be the most difficult task ever (perhaps not “ever”, but pretty much). Phil Spector, the 2013 TV movie directed by David Mamet based on the 2003 murder of the actress Lana Clarkson in hands of one of the most renowned music producers in the world, is, in my opinion, one of the best TV movies made recently by HBO. Is it accurate? Every party will say it is not for different reasons (I myself am not expert on the trial so I’m not going to judge its accuracy), but truth (THE TRUTH) is not its main goal: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.” Phil Spector is a fiction that goes beyond the actual events and challenges our perception of objectivity, bias and celebrity culture.
How can you tackle such a controversial topic in way that will leave everyone satisfied? It is simply impossible, and I believe that this basis is present in the movie from minute 1. I have read several articles about Lana Clarkson’s family criticizing the movie for glorifying a murderer and I have come across interviews to Phil Spector’s then-wife claiming that he was not the gun-crazed man the character played by Al Pacino seems to be. Which is why the main premise of the film is important, because it acknowledges the difficulties of portraying such an individual: David Mamet’s movie does not want nor pretends to be a news story, it is a “what could have happened” in the part of the events we did not get to see, beyond the trial, its many witnesses and the ever-present press. So what we really need to understand is that it is a fiction: nobody other than Linda Kenney Baden (an advisor to the film) and Phil Spector himself know what happened outside the court, and Phil Spector is an attempt to imagine what those conversations and moments may have been like. Of course, there is a real context, real problems and real characters, but we are not forced to believe everything we see and it is our duty as the audience to draw the line where reality ends and fiction begins.
What I admire about this fictionalized Phil Spector is how Mamet challenges our own beliefs and makes us wonder, for about an hour and a half, if this (convicted) man did really kill Lana Clarkson (though let’s keep in mind, Mamet’s intention was never to attack the victim since that would be unethical). Is he a sympathetic figure? Not really at first, but, at least in my case, I ended up empathizing with him, which is really creepy when you think about it. How many directors and screenwriters achieve to do that? Would we feel close to Roman Polanski if HBO (it would have to be HBO) made a fiction about his case? (The People vs O.J Simpson would be a good comparison but I haven’t seen it so I can’t really say).
I think empathizing with Phil Spector is, in a way, what the director wants the audience to do. Would it be easier (and perhaps more ethical) if the character was entirely fictional? Absolutely, but the point remains: Phil Spector is the story of going beyond prejudice, of discerning reasonable doubt from prejudice. Which is why, in my opinion, the movie is not about Phil Spector, but about Linda Kenney Baden, his lawyer. She is the one who, very much like the audience, evolves: she goes from condemning the man due to the gossip she has read and her prejudice (“he’s a freak”) to understanding that perhaps these pre-conceived thoughts are affecting her ability as a lawyer (he is a man after all, and how many of those who write about him really know him?). We, the audience, start watching this movie knowing already everything we know about Phil Spector from the media, and our perception is challenged once a new perspective is offered.
Despite the fact I felt sorry for Mr. Spector (the fictional Phil Spector at least), I don’t think the movie glorifies him: he is a freak and he is portrayed as such, he keeps talking nonsense, claiming everyone lies about him (in a Donald Trump kind of way) and he simply seems like a very deranged man who could have perfectly killed a woman in order to force him to sleep with him. However, I understand why Lana Clarkson’s family and friends may have been offended by this movie, just implying that she killed herself or that it was an accident (wen the outcome of the trial says the opposite) could be insulting (I personally didn’t think for a second she committed suicide). The movie is a fiction (and Mamet does not say she killed herself, it is only an argument made by Spector’s defense), but in cases like these the controversy is served.
And now, my favorite part where I get to talk about how brilliant Helen Mirren is (if you browse through my blog you’ll realize how she’s one of my favorite actresses ever). I may not be 100% objective, but Dame Helen Mirren is simply astonishing in this movie. Her role as Linda Kenney Baden, which earned her a Screen Actors Guild Award, is one of her best in recent years: she makes her character evolve and makes us believe that this character is real. She acts as a mirror for the audience, as we see ourselves as this person who discovers the world of this almost mythological creature, who is very much like the Minotaur. Had the character been played by another actress, I think that the emotional effect on the audience would not have been the same. Al Pacino is also great, he is after all Al Pacino, and I think it is refreshing to see him in something more interesting than The Humbling or any other crap he’s been lately.
Phil Spector is far from being perfect, in fact I think it should have gone all the way: bigger, better and, why not, more controversial: let’s go all the way back to the 90’s when HBO had the freedom to be as bold as possible. It’s not Behind the Candelabra, and it probably wouldn’t have done well if it had been theatrically released. It remains pretty “soft”, leaving both parties dissatisfied, but nonetheless (and despite the low rating on Rotten Tomatoes), I think it is worth a watch, especially living in a society where our perception of celebrities is constantly filtered by the media and reality and fiction are constantly intertwined.