HBO’s ‘Phil Spector’ more fascinating than the man himself

Hollywood Soapbox logoHBO’s Phil Spector, written and directed by David Mamet, is an enthralling portrait of the legendary music producer in the days leading up to his homicide trial. Al Pacino plays the title character as a deflated god peering down on the riches and splendors of his former life. Spector traipses around his mansion, awaiting his final verdict and unwilling to accept the role of alleged murderer. Pacino, a skilled interpreter, seems to be always thinking in the role, ruminating and ruminating. It’s an exquisite performance, so skilled that the movie has difficulty matching its excellence.

Most viewers know the story all too well: Spector, an influential man who brought many important songs and music groups to popularity in the 1960s, was charged with shooting a female friend who was over his house. In the movie, Spector claims the woman was playing with the gun when it went off, but the prosecutors were convinced he had something to do with the death.

The movie, which runs a quick 90 minutes, follows Spector as he prepares for his first murder trial. His defense attorney is the somewhat unconventional Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), a woman who dedicates herself to the case and proving that Spector may not have pulled the trigger.

Both Pacino and Mirren have this uncanny ability to center their respective characters around certain physical characteristics. Pacino’s Spector is a man who speaks with his hands and has his face drag down in a state of depression. When he crosses a topic he enjoys discussing, he perks up, and the slump because less dramatic. Mirren’s Baden is constantly fighting a cold — coughing, sneezing and asking for medicine. The two are vastly different people, and yet they are inextricably tied together. Baden seems to believe that there’s enough reasonable doubt, and Spector is sold on his innocence. Together they make a case before the court; how convincing is that case is up to the reader.

Mamet, a great American playwright, always takes risks with his material, and he does the same thing with Phil Spector. Any other director would have crucified the record producer from the first frame; however, Mamet decides to find sympathy in Spector’s story. He humanizes the odd antics of the often-parodied man (the wigs in court, the reclusiveness). It’s hard to buy into all elements of the portrayal, and it’s hard not to ask more serious questions. But Mamet’s film introduces an invigorating conversation, one that seems worthy of 90 minutes. The question has less to do with Spector’s innocence or guilt and more to do with preconceived notions. Does the public indict on day one, especially if the suspect seems to fit some stereotypical bill? Are we more inclined to “lock him up and throw away the key” because certain personal matters don’t work with our expected image of how a person is supposed to act? Phil Spector the movie is actually more fascinating than Phil Spector the man.

By John Soltes / Publisher /

  • Phil Spector

  • 2013 TV movie

  • Written and directed by David Mamet

  • Starring Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, Jeffrey Tambor, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rebecca Pidgeon

  • Running time: 90 minutes

  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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