Of course Al Pacino is flashy in David Mamet’s “Phil Spector.” Think Pacino in clown wigs, spewing a rockslide of words by Mamet, and you can just imagine. Whether or not Mamet and Pacino’s vision of the legendary music producer is accurate, it is a somewhat entertaining spectacle of ego, bombast, and vampiric torment. They give us a loud guy who, in some twisted, narcissistic way, is both a powerless little boy and a decrepit, world-weary grumbler about fame and human nature.
About 20 minutes into the HBO movie, we first see Pacino’s Spector, wandering around his darkened mansion in silk pajamas like a rock ’n’ roll Miss Havisham. As his new lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), watches and listens, he strokes his memorabilia and brags about his mementos — including the white piano on which John Lennon wrote “Imagine.” He expounds on his own mythology, saying, “The Jews didn’t invent the music business, I invented the music business.” Pacino is Pacino, hammily spitting out his lines as usual, but this time he’s steeped in Gothic grandiosity and opulence. He’s Tony Montana from “Scarface” inside Norma Desmond.
Spector’s wife, Rachelle, has objected to the portrayal of her husband as a “foul-mouthed megalomaniac” in “Phil Spector,” but notice she didn’t use the word “boring” in her critique. Pacino’s performance is pure Emmy bait — but wait, still to come: Michael Douglas as a bedazzled Liberace in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra” on May 26.
Everything aside from Pacino in this movie, which premieres Sunday at 9, is surprisingly ordinary and lacking. In between the occasional scenes of Pacino’s familiar flamboyant bluster, we see what is essentially a bland procedural about defending Spector in the 2003 shooting of actress Lana Clarkson. Most of “Phil Spector” is about Baden planning out the defense’s case, which mostly has to do with the blood spatter in the room where Clarkson died. It’s played-out territory for any “Law & Order” fan, or for anyone who followed the real Spector trial. Can Baden plant reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury? Will the law firm’s focus groups help? Should she put her client on the stand?
It’s as if Mamet, who directed as well as wrote, decided that the point of the venture was Pacino and didn’t much bother to paint in around the star. Mirren, too, seems to have given up in the face of Pacino. She’s fine as Baden, but her American accent is shaky and she spends too much time reminding us that Baden has pneumonia.
The movie is prefaced with an absurd disclaimer calling it “a work of fiction” that is “not ‘based on a true story.’ ” That frees up Mamet to present Spector’s side of the case, which has already stirred protest from Clarkson’s people. At first, Baden — the viewer’s surrogate — is convinced her client is guilty. He has a gun collection and stories of abuse toward women in his background. There is old footage of him firing a gun during a studio session. She tells the colleague she is taking over the case from, Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor), that she “won’t attack the girl” in her approach to the defense. But she becomes increasingly charmed by Spector, and, as they work together, she turns into a mother figure to him. She becomes fully persuaded that there is doubt when a study shows that Clarkson may have had the gun in her mouth and accidentally pulled the trigger when Spector screamed for her to stop.
The real Spector is currently in jail, the result of a second trial after Baden’s trial led to a hung jury and a mistrial. But now Mamet plants a seed of doubt in the viewer — that Spector was ultimately found guilty for being strange and famous, that, as Baden suggests, Spector was tried “for the murder of OJ’s wife.” But if this is all “fiction,” so what? Why not make a documentary? Oh yeah, Pacino in wigs.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.