Sunday, March 24, 2013

Phil Spector's True-Life Fiction

I've always been haunted by the pure morbidness in the death of Sid Vicious, the blasted-out-of-his-mind former guitarist with the Sex Pistols. Sure, he was a strange character -- even for a punk rock icon of late 1970s England, where thumbing your nose at society meant safety pins in your cheek and a crash course in drugs and self-immolation. Yet, the Sex Pistols were utterly without equal in their tirades about a fascist Queen of England and having no future.

But the cartoonishly strung-out rock star soon became a poster child for the fatalism of early punk rock. Soon after the demise of the Pistols, Vicious and girlfriends/group manager Nancy Spungen, engaged in a mind-boggling spree of drugs in the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan, a rock star paradise that had once been Andy Warhol-glamorous but was now cockroach-crawling seediness. Nancy was found dead of a stab wound in the fall of 1978. Vicious, accused of her murder, died soon after of a heroin overdose, supposedly carrying out a suicide pact. And so sprung the popular movie, "Sid and Nancy" and other docudramas on the sordid event, bringing the nightmare to popular imagination.
A wigged-out Al Pacino

This story is only a prelude to a short discussion of a new HBO film, "Phil Spector," written by playwright David Mamet and launched March 24. Spector, the famed music producer ("Spanish Harlem," Da Doo Ron Ron," "He's a Rebel," many more), has his own weird side; he was -- and apparently still is - a raging egomaniac and ranting madman, a lover of high-topped wigs that belong in the Smithsonian, and a curator of big guns. The latter got him in hot water in 2003, when Spector was accused of killing actress Lana Clarkson after a date. Clarkson apparently either put a gun in her mouth or was forced to do so by Spector (who had once been accused by ex-wife Ronnie of the Ronettes of abuse in their marriage). A trigger was pulled, a gruesome death ensued.

And a movie was born. But this time, it's a bit different. Mamet, the famous writer, says this is a fictional story, not a true account of Spector's life and murder conviction; it is a made-up movie that eventually argues that, while Spector is as flamboyant as Liberace (the subject of another upcoming movie) and could be considered a dangerous personality like John Dillinger, he didn't kill anyone. His film has the great actress Helen Mirren arguing for the defense, while playing a lawyer convinced of his innocence. And the movie has the gall to cast Al Pacino as the potential lunatic that is Spector, in a performance befitting his gift of inhabiting characters that the audience can't keep its eyes off even as we know he is pulling off a great job of hammy overemoting.

With Pacino and Mirren behind this movie, I'm sure the ratings will be huge. But many will see this as just another reality-based docudrama that shows that a strange celebrity can be perceived wrongly by the public. Check out actor Robert Blake's years of talk-show arguments on his innocence in the death of his ex-wife, while appearing as an aggressive doberman. We assume our weird celebrities are engaged in possible wrongdoing; how could we know they are really like us.

But have we blurred the line between reality and fiction? Does it really matter if Spector is guilty or innocent? That's not really the point anymore; we'd rather just see our celebrities naked, foaming at the mouth and made for TV. Even Sid Vicious is considered just a carnival experience at the movies, as we forget the original vitality of the art.

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