David Mamet or his lawyers chose to put an odd disclaimer at the beginning of Phil Spector, the TV movie that Mamet wrote and directed for HBO, to be broadcast this Sunday. "This is a work of fiction," we are told. "It is 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." This disclaimer is strange not because it's so legalistically convoluted, but because it's so misleading. If the film is not a precisely accurate account of the trial that led to the trial that led to Spector’s conviction for second-degree murder in May 2009, Phil Spector is actually about something real, something straight from the nonfiction world: The true story that the movie tells—indirectly, but precisely and accurately—is the story of Phil Spector's music.
Viewers unschooled in Spector's work, the music that gave Spector his early reputation as a genius of pop record production, would be forgiven for mistaking the Mamet movie for a pulpy courtroom drama geared to the virtuoso hamming of Al Pacino (as Spector, resplendent in drag-show wigs and belly padding) and Helen Mirren (as the attorney Linda Kenny Baden, who took over Spector's case from celeb defender Bruce Cutler). Scene for scene, the film deals mainly with the final period of Spector's trial, rarely touching on his music explicitly. Baden, portrayed as initially dubious of Spector's innocence but eager for the vacation in Venice that her billable hours would fund, finds herself succumbing to Spector's freakish charm and works his case. Spector, by way of Mamet and Pacino, comes off as a manic but strangely articulate savant, driven by powerlust, vanity, a need to compensate for his small penis, and an affection for the Latin beat—two parts generic Mamet male, one part Pacino as Satan in The Devil's Advocate, and half-a-part Pacino's Scarface.
At the same time, the Spector of Phil Spector embodies the fundamentals of the real Phil Spector’s music. Spector, in the movie, dodges and obfuscates, pumps himself up, spins and perpetually angles for advantage. He muddies things; he inflates; he plays for power. That is to say, he does exactly what that the real-life Spector did in the music he made as a record producer. The main themes of Mamet's film are the defining elements of Spector's music: sponginess, inflation, and the exertion of power.
Since the mid-60s, Spector has been described as a genius—most often, at first, by his publicity people. (As early as 1966, Spector's advance man, Danny Davis, was promoting Spector to reporters like Peter Bart of The New York Times as "a groovy kind of genius.") His reputation then and now hangs largely on the originality and potency of an approach to sonic design that is invariably called the "wall of sound," which Spector created by mustering small armies of studio musicians and using tape technology to double, triple, and sometimes quadruple the recorded sound. The image of a wall is right: Spector's effect was to flatten the instrumentation, and each level of over-recording made the music denser but foggier.
Recorded in mono to be played on transistor radios, Spector's wall-of-sound records—the songs "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Be My Baby," "Then He Kissed Me," and "Baby, I Love You"—suited their day, but would come to seem out of place. When the proliferation of high-quality stereo sound systems in the late '60s made a new era of close listening possible, Spector’s signature sound lost much of its power.
Spector's sound, being a wall, was an effective divider. The singers on his records tended to seem disconnected from the instrumentation, in part because of the flatness of the instrumental recording, in part because Spector loved to process voices with heavy echo effects. Spector's vocalists often sounded interchangeable, and he saw them that way, sometimes using different singers on different records attributed to the same group.
Musically, Spector essentially had one idea: Spector's measure of value was scale. He made the biggest music he could figure out how to make, and the sheer hugeness of his sound worked beautifully in compensation for the simplicity and the juvenility of the songs he recorded when he was making his reputation as a top-forty tyro. The grandiosity of Spector's approach didn't quite befit this material, but magnified it to make the concerns of teen life feel like something monumental for two and a half minutes.
But having one idea—to make things big—is not the same as having a big idea. He applied his approach with arrogant indifference and indiscrimination to whomever he was producing—including, notoriously, the Beatles, after John Lennon hired him to doctor the live sessions that became known as the Let It Be album. McCartney was famously appalled to hear the generic Spectorization of "The Long and Winding Road," much as Leonard Cohen would later be outraged to hear what Spector did, without his assent, to the tracks he recorded for the album released as Death of a Ladies Man.
In Phil Spector, the movie, Mamet has Pacino's Spector sputtering a defense of his work on Let It Be—a defense of his unilateral application of his overblown sound to every circumstance. "I was proved right," he says. This is not the only time in the film where the evidence is lacking.