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“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector,” a “Defeat Lap” for the Legendary Producer

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector,” a “Defeat Lap” for the Legendary Producer  (photo)

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If most recent documentaries assaying ’60s and ’70s rock and roll are any indication, filmmakers expect viewers to approach pop music history not with open minds but with empty heads.

Case in point: the curiosity that led me to watch “Stones In Exile,” a recent non-fiction film on the making of the Rolling Stones beyond seminal LP “Exile On Main Street,” was rewarded by supposedly contextualizing input from a young man in a band called Kings Of Leon who appeared in his choice of comments to have never heard of either the Stones or their 1972 album.

No offense to anyone’s record collection, but the complete absence of Bono, Jack White, Sheryl Crow and the rest of the rock doc talking head usual suspects in Vikram Jayanti’s new film puts it in the winner’s circle right out of the gate. That film is “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector,” a documentary on the legendary producer, songwriter and, now, convicted murderer.

Instead of assembling footage of collaborators and celebrity “experts,” Jayanti’s film places Phil Spector’s greatest and most infamous critic, fan and apologist front and center — Spector himself. In a series of interviews shot by the extravagantly talented cinematographer Maryse Alberti (“No Direction Home,” “Happiness,” “Velvet Goldmine”) Spector appears rheumy-eyed, bewigged and candid to a fault.

06302010_agonyecstasy5.jpgHe expounds on the long and winding road that led him from a Bronx childhood scarred by paternal suicide, to life as a Los Angeles high school social outcast, to music industry teenage hit-maker status, to architect of the lush “Wall of Sound” recording style, to Beatles producer and confidante, and eventually accused murderer.

Just scoring an interview of this length and breadth with a man as notoriously privacy-obsessed and reclusive as Spector is a non-fiction filmmaking coup of the highest order. But the fact that the interview subject was at the time of his sit-down in the midst of his first (ultimately inconclusive) trial on the charge of killing actress and waitress Lana Clarkson with a pistol from his own collection turns the film’s Q & A into something else.

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector” becomes a kind of confessional and accusatory spoken word aria that wanders into the documentary borderlands. In light of its subjects subsequent conviction and sentencing to 19 years to life for killing Clarkson, this sympathetic portrait (produced for BBC’s excellent Arena series) might best be described as a “defeat lap.”

06302010_agonyecstasy6.jpgLike Dixon Steele, the character played by Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray’s LA anti-romance “In A Lonely Place,” the Phil Spector on view here appears to have spent his entire life inadvertently grooming himself for trial by both jury and public opinion. Segments in which Spector casually compares his work to that of Leonardo da Vinci, dishes on what ingrates most of the performers he made into stars ultimately were and rues the outcome of court proceedings left in the hands of his intellectual inferiors jockey for screen time with lengthy Court TV excerpts of the first trial.

The latter appear designed to capture the tedium of American justice as much as evidence for conviction (a parade of ex-girlfriends testifying to Spector’s serial physical abuse) and against (legal and forensic experts questioning the identify of finger on the trigger itself). There are also excerpted moments from a comparatively grim 1977 camera sit-down also staged in Spector’s LA mansion (excuse me, “castle”) in which the interviewee was apparently quite drunk, and audio and vintage filmed performances of the songs under discussion.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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