review: david Mamet’s ‘phil spector’

David Mamet’s Phil Spector is a biographical drama highlighting the association among defense lawyer Linda Kennedy Baden and her client Phil Spector, the former American record producer and songwriter. The music business icon was on trial for murder, in the death of late actress, Lana Clarkson. The film opens with the song “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers in what seems to be anachronistic only until we quickly realize that the song was a Phil Spector production. The film’s writer/director, David Mamet (Redbelt, State and Main), creatively uses Spector’s other songs throughout the film, adding to the repertoire of the music legend’s great influence on the industry and pop-culture. Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) and Linda Baden (Hellen Mirren) are lawyers defending Phil Spector’s involvement in the death of Lana Clarkson. The public protests against the music prodigy as guilty, since he built a reputation for brandishing gun’s upon women, forcing them to sleep with him. Bruce Cutler doesn’t believe Spector pulled the trigger, he believes Lana Clarkson committed suicide. Linda Baden is on the fence, since five different women have testified against Spector, claiming he is a demented womanizer who pulls guns on women to force them into doing whatever he so pleases.

Phil Spector (Al Pacino) and Linda Baden (Helen Mirren) in Phil Spector (2013) HBO Films

Despite all of this, we meet Phil Spector (Al Pacino) inside his darkly lit mansion in Hollywood when Linda pays him a visit to discuss particulars. Spector is extremely flushed with affluence inside of his fortress where he lives a solitary lifestyle in seclusion from reality. Phil Spector is adamant about his innocence and claims to be the genius that transformed the entire music world and takes personal credit for having created the business aspect of the industry. David Mamet directs with ease and simplicity, using long-takes letting the actors perform their emotions, like they would on stage in theatre. The cinematography composes shots with subjects in the foreground juxtaposed with information in the background, adding for depth of vision within the frame. There are dynamic changes in lighting from scene to scene. Phil’s mansion is shadowed with mystery and filled with various artifacts, rugs, paintings, posters, knick-knacks sporadic throughout the vast bedrooms that are like portals to other dimensions. This contrasts with a transition from the ethereal and expedient luxurious mansion with a burning woodfire promoting a relaxed and secure feeling into the city of angels, the city of chaos, the city of lost souls as the helicopters fly the skies, over the grid of city streets and maze of highways that is Los Angeles. Sirens blare from police units and ambulance trucks, protesters align the sidewalks shouting for the conviction of Phil Spector.

Linda Baden (Helen Mirren) and the Mock Prosecutor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Phil Spector (2013) HBO Films

We meet Dr. Fallon (Rebecca Pidgeon), who is brought onto the defense team to explain the implausibility of the accusation; it’s impossible for Spector to have pulled the trigger, since an exact copy of the white coat he wore on that night did not have a single stain of red, and had he committed the heinous crime, his white coat should be painted with blood, considering the distance between him and Lana Clarkson. There is an amazing meltdown in a courtroom rehearsal set, built to practice, prior to the trial, where Spector goes off on a tantrum after he is brutally accused by a Mock Prosecutor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who berates Spector in preparation for the reality of how the trial will attempt to rip apart Spector when he goes up for cross examination and questioning. Though Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance was a cameo, it left its mark on the on film and his acting in this sequence is remarkable. Spector goes off on him and Linda in a tantrum, in another phenomenal performance by Al Pacino, who played the role cunningly with a shrewd demeanor.

Phil Spector (Al Pacino) and Linda Baden (Helen Mirren) in Phil Spector (2013) HBO Films

Visually the film is stunning as Phil Spector wears a new wig, or hair piece, in every scene, over colorful silk robes with growling tigers imprinted on them. The editing is paced perfectly with timed cuts used only to move the story forward. Each actor get’s his due screen time because of Mamet’s patience in direction, most likely stemming from his background in theatre as a Pulitzer winning playwright. David Mamet’s script is at full-force with informatively educational discussions filled with references to U.S. Presidents of past, Hollywood tales, Music Pop-culture, and psychological facts and theories. It’s written with rhythmically compelling arguments in dialogue as well as monologue, in which the characters often appear to be reasoning various claims with themselves. Though David Mamet and Al Pacino have collaborated multiple times in theatre (China Doll), this is the first time we’ve seen them as a duo on a feature film. Al Pacino famously portrayed the character of Ricky Roma for Glengarry Glen Ross (1993), a screenplay written by David Mamet, based on his own play, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1984. On Phil Spector, David Mamet appears to have written the characters on an even-keel, especially in Linda Baden, as she attempts to merely do her job and is not concerned with whether Spector would or could commit such a crime. The entire film we’re left wondering if the death of Lana Clarkson was murder, suicide or accidental, which keeps us intrigued until the end.

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