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Phil Spector film is about the music and the courtroom

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Directed by Vikram Jayanti

Phil Spector: guilty or innocent?

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As far as the law is concerned, guilty. Guilty of murdering actress/hostess Lana Clarkson in the foyer of his Los Angeles mansion in February, 2003. Hell, isn't that why the man responsible for River Deep, Mountain High, Da Doo Ron Ron and You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' is spending his days and nights in the California State Prison in Corcoran, grinding down that 19-years-to-life sentence a jury handed him in April, 2009?

At least one person isn't entirely convinced of Harvey Philip Spector's guilt, though. Vikram Jayanti, the two-time Oscar-winning documentary director and producer, spent several weeks before Spector's first trial in early 2007 (it ended in a mistrial), hanging out with the pint-sized pop Svengali, eventually taping a few hours of conversation mere metres from where Clarkson met her bloody end. It's this conversation that's the spine of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, a 102-minute documentary Jayanti prepared for BBC4 in late 2008. The film has been on the festival and cinematheque circuit ever since, and comes to Toronto on Thursday for a one-week run at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

The Phil Spector before Jayanti's lens isn't exactly Mr. Likeable, to put it mildly. But a cold-blooded killer? "There is a strong possibility Phil killed her," Jayanti acknowledged the other day from Los Angeles. "But I personally think there's a reasonable doubt, soI tried to leave it open-ended, which makes the film seem sympathetic to Phil - and I think it probably is - but only inasmuch as I think the prosecution didn't prove him guilty.

"Maybe," he said with a slight chuckle, "I'm trying to hold on, in the age of Guantanamo, to that notion of innocence until you are actually proven guilty."

At the same time, viewers looking for a film à la Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line that puts the lock on Spector's guilt or innocence are advised to look elsewhere. While The Agony and the Ecstasy has lots of footage of the 2007 trial, the clips are marshalled not for purposes of vindication but to score artistic and psychological points, (Pain! Alienation! Resentment!), with Jayanti "editing the evidence" to the themes and rhythms of Spector's greatest songs.

"I know this is going to sound really unhuman of me, but as a filmmaker I wasn't interested in the outcome of the trial, the nitty-gritty," Jayanti remarked. "I was actually interested in the connection between the music and the courtroom. I wanted to celebrate the musical legacy without blinking at how horrible the man might be, y'know?"

Indeed, he added, "I want the viewer to consider Phil's music as a clue to how he ended up in court on trial for murder." (Thirty-five years ago, critic Nik Cohn described the Spector sound as "an apocalypse ... [its]beat a murderous massed cannonade.")

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"American monsters" is the term a Jayanti friend at the BBC coined to describe the often-troubled, larger-than-life characters, like Spector and James Ellroy and Abraham Lincoln, Jayanti is drawn to document. "In Phil's case, it's about how we elevate geniuses and artists in our culture to a special category."

Jayanti, 55, claims to have spent pretty much every lunch break with Spector during the 2007 trial, and "I could see Phil thinking, 'Don't [the judge and the jury]know who I am? Haven't they heard River Deep, Mountain High? I wouldn't be in here if they knew my music. Really, wouldn't we be a lot better off listening to He's a Rebel instead of this blood-splatter expert?' "

The filmmaker laughed. "He was in this fugue state, listening to his greatest hits in his mind ... not to the world of real life."

Jayanti confessed that he didn't pay much attention to Spector's second trial nor has he sought to speak with Spector, who turned 70 this past Christmas, since the man who built the "Wall of Sound" went behind a wall of steel bars. "I found what I wanted to find out. Generally, I don't revisit the ground I've covered," he said.

Nevertheless, he is intrigued "how the life of the Phil film continues. I mean, I've made four films since then," including one on Australian entertainer Rolf Harris, of Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport fame. Yet, he noted, it's the Phil Spector story that David Mamet wants to write and direct as an HBO feature, not Rolf Harris's. And it's Al Pacino who agreed last October to be cast as Spector.

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