‘He was celebrated and protected’: revisiting the dark story of Phil Spector

AAs Boomers aged into parenthood, a musical standby of their own youth became permanently enshrined in the Christmas canon. Every December, generations young enough to have been raised on pop will put on Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You, a compilation album featuring ’60s girl groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals singing Christmas standards. On the final track, however, mega-producer and impresario Spector delivers a direct speech to the listener over the gentle strains of Silent Night, explaining his vision for the project and thanking the public for letting him into their homes. There’s an eerie intimacy to the spoken song, Spector’s raspy voice gentle but insincere, his speech sentimental yet egotistical. Even without knowledge of his turbulent background, a child trimming the tree may discover something troubling.

Spector, a four-part documentary airing this week on Showtime, catalogs the contradictions that make up an essential, despicable figure without trying to unravel them. “Like many people my age who grew up listening to ’60s music with their parents, I knew Phil Spector’s work before I knew who he was,” said Don Argott, co-director of the upcoming miniseries with Sheena M Joyce. “I knew the eccentric stories, that he pulled guns, the trial, his afro hair, but this knowledge was not quite complete.” This is the man at large, a vivid dissonance between the creative output that gave exquisite voice to teenybopper innocence and the violent, erratic behavior behind the scenes. But if his story is a tragedy of hubris that ends in murder, that means he’s only one of two main characters.

“One of the things we felt most strongly in developing this was, well, there have been Phil Spector documentaries before, why do we need to do another one now?” says Argott. “What else can we bring to the table? What hasn’t been talked about? We all knew Lana Clarkson’s story, her treatment, her portrayal, all of that was worth looking back on.”

Although Spector did not perform on stage, he put his talents front and center to promote himself as a celebrity. “In his day he was extremely well known,” says Joyce. “People learning about him now might not see this right away, but his popularity had him on TV all the time, on I Dream of Jeannie, on Merv Griffin, in Easy Rider, everywhere. He was a huge part of pop culture, and this was a calculation … He cultivated an image, a sound and a brand that transcended both.” This idiosyncratic cult of personality would prove crucial in the murder trial of Lana Clarkson, an actor and hostess at the Los Angeles House of Blues, where she met Spector on the night of February 3, 2003. He brought her back to his palatial Alhambra estate, known as the Castle of the Pyrenees, and after about an hour his driver heard a shot and glimpsed Spector staggering out the back door with a gun in his hand. One would logically assume murder; he insisted she had killed herself.

Argott and Joyce differentiate their take on a heavily analyzed figure—they spent so much time researching that they didn’t even bother to watch the Al Pacino-led biopic—by shifting the focus to Clarkson, a woman made up of more than the extraordinary circumstances of her untimely death. As they chronicle Spector’s rapid rise to the top of the music business, from his first gold record as a teenager to taking sole control of his own label at 21, the lesser-told origins of Clarkson unfold in a parallel that eventually coalesces into a fateful curve that unites the two subjects. “We wanted to chart how these two people met that night,” Joyce explains. “As Phil would say, it’s all timing. It’s all timing. If she doesn’t break both wrists, she’s not at the House of Blues. If she’s not on shift there, she never meets him. Anything could have happened.”

With a series of fork-in-candle-socket hairstyles and other sideshow stunts, Spector turned his trial into a three-ring media circus that he could preside over as master of ceremonies. A key part of his offensive was to cast Clarkson as the villain, assigning her the story of a washed-up fame-chaser that the mainstream accepted all too readily. She’d been a vivacious chick in low-budget B-movies in the ’80s, but had since constructed a second act as a raunchy stand-up comic, never mind the wholesale price of her basic humanity. “In a lot of the coverage you’ll see from that time, the portrayal of Lana was on the surface,” Argott says. “That she wasn’t as famous as Spector was a temporary aspect of her life, and that’s all a lot of people cared to know about her. It wasn’t far from “What did she expect to happen if she went home with him ?” Of course she was killed.”

Lana Clarkson.
Lana Clarkson. Photo: AP

The miniseries provides a corrective by giving Clarkson newfound decor, much of it based on the stories of her loved ones. They describe the personality minimized in the press and remember Clarkson as a gregarious entertainer with a room-filling laugh. But beyond the affectionate portrait of an obituary, the character building also touches on a formative trauma with the death of Clarkson’s father in a mining accident. Joyce and Argott form a darkly ironic rhyme by linking this to the suicide of Spector’s father, both of whom brought the surviving children to Los Angeles for a fresh start. The creators realized they had to empathize with both the perpetrator and the victim in their attempt to bring some moral clarity to a crime that may outwardly seem senseless.

“We were lucky to have [Phil’s daughter] Nicole’s participation in the film, and it was with her permission that we were able to use the music,” says Joyce. “Don and I were very upfront about our intent, which was to paint as accurate a picture of Phil and Lana as we could. We couldn’t make any promises about how her dad would be portrayed in the end, but we wanted to give him a fair shake , and I think we do. Talking about the tragedies that befell him in his life gives context to his behavior and incidents. And we made it clear that we wanted to look closely at Lana, consult with her friends and family, get to know her as person. I don’t want to speak for anybody, I can only tell you what our intentions were. We stuck to the facts.”

The series’ final episode eschews the prescriptive, refraining from deciding one way or another how we should hold the complicated memory of Spector and his still-loved work in our minds. But after seeing this thoughtful tribute to Clarkson, it will be hard to hear And Then He Kissed Me or the other golden oldies without thinking about the potential taken from her.

“It’s a much bigger question, one that we’re really getting into, whether you can separate art from the artist,” Joyce says. “Because he’s the producer in the booth, it might be easier to listen to that music, or to keep your appreciation of the art itself free, so to speak, whereas listening to Michael Jackson has become more difficult for some people. But I don’t necessarily think that he was treated differently by the public or those in the industry for that. He was celebrated and protected. Like many people labeled as eccentric artists, their mental health issues and idiosyncrasies are dismissed. Like that’s just the price you pay for genius.”

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