TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This Sunday, HBO Films presents a new, made-for-TV movie called "Phil Spector." It's about the famous - and infamous - record producer as he and his legal team prepare his defense in court, on charges of murdering a female companion. The movie stars Al Pacino as Phil Spector, and Helen Mirren as the lawyer who ends up leading his initial defense. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S A REBEL")
THE CRYSTALS: (Singing) See the way he walks down the street. That's the way he shuffles his feet. My, he holds his head up high when he goes walking by. He's my guy...
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The HBO movie "Phil Spector" is a production that demands attention because of the heavyweight names attached. First, of course, there's the subject of the drama - Spector himself, the man who invented the Wall of Sound and recorded hits for everyone from the Crystals, Darlene Love, and Ike and Tina Turner; to the Beatles and The Righteous Brothers. Oh, and who also went on trial in 2007, for the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson. He claimed she shot herself with one of his many guns. The prosecution argued that he put the gun barrel in her mouth, and pulled the trigger.
Then there are the names attached to this dramatization. Barry Levinson is the executive producer. David Mamet is both writer and director. Jeffrey Tambor plays the leading defense attorney, Bruce Cutler, who brings in attorney Linda Kenney Baden as a last minute co-counsel. Linda is played by Helen Mirren, and Al Pacino plays Phil Spector. Almost the entire movie focuses on those last two, with Linda trying to get to know Spector quickly while mounting a defense and assessing whether he should be put on the stand.
But what demands the most attention here, to me, isn't the subject, or the production team, or the stars. It's the opening disclaimer, written by Mamet as a preface to his story. I've been a TV critic for more than 35 years now, and I've never seen anything quite like it. Even though it's based on actual people and concerns an actual event, here is the disclaimer to the movie called "Phil Spector." Quote, "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," unquote.
Mamet may as well have written: Don't anybody sue us. I'm just making stuff up, using names and a few bits of court testimony that are in the public record - except if you look closely at the credits for this HBO work of fiction, you'll find that Linda Kenney Baden - the attorney played by Helen Mirren - serves as a consultant. So even though her exchanges with the real Phil Spector are protected by attorney-client privilege, you get the feeling - at least, I do - that Mamet may not be winging it as much as he claims to be with that disclaimer.
But take that disclaimer seriously. You can't trust what you see in this HBO movie. But you can, and should, enjoy it. This "Phil Spector" movie, essentially, is a two-person play - an awkward dance between Linda and her eccentric client, as he reveals his shifting psychological states by jamming his mental gears between charming remarks, challenging questions and emotional rants.
Pacino is an actor set at hurricane force here, and Mirren matches him by countering his fury with her calm. Mamet's dialogue, as expected, is crisp and thought-provoking; and these two acting pros make the most of it. Here's a scene from their first meeting, when Linda visits Phil's mansion and he reaches for a vinyl record, to put on the turntable as they talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PHIL SPECTOR")
HELEN MIRREN: (as Linda Kenney Baden) As your attorney, I must counsel you not - whatever the provocation, not to talk to anyone.
AL PACINO: (as Phil Spector) They're indicting me for murder. All right, sorry. "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" - what was it? Are you kidding me? What was it? It was - it was the greatest song ever released. I sold over 2 and a half million copies. You say that Jews invented the music business. The Jews didn't invent the music business. I invented the music business. Seventh Avenue, New York, there's a statue, a little old Jewish guy, yarmulke, bent over a sewing machine. He's that guy invented ready-to-wear. I invented the music business. Where's a statue of me? Where's the presidential medal? (Puts record on turntable)
THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS: (Singing) You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips...
PACINO: Sidney Poitier broke the color barrier? Are you kidding me? He was playing Superman. You want to know who he was? He was an uptight, frightened, white guy's version of a black man. I put the Ronettes in their home. I put black America in the white home. First time you got felt up, first time you got somebody's hand on you, guess what? You were listening to one of my songs.
MIRREN: (as Linda Kenney Baden) Did you kill that girl?
PACINO: (as Phil Spector) I thought attorneys never asked that question.
BIANCULLI: This "Phil Spector" movie does ask that question, but never answers it, and never even tries to. In essence, it reminds me of "Fatal Vision," the famous 1984 miniseries about preparations for the murder trial of Jeffrey MacDonald.
But even there, that story's author, Joe McGinniss, eventually came down on one side and delivered his own verdict, even making himself a character in that drama. In the HBO movie "Phil Spector," the only verdict comes at the end, when we're told what the jury decided at the end of Spector's days in court.
And after the movie is all over, I'm left with my final verdict as well. I may not believe a lot of what I see in HBO's "Phil Spector," but I'm certainly impressed and entertained by it.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.