Features | Unchained Melodies: The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector and It Felt Like a Kiss

AgonyAndEcstasyOfPhilSpectorThe 2

By Thom Andersen

“Is it dumb enough?” Phil Spector asked Sonny Bono as they listened to a playback of “Da Doo Ron Ron” one day in March 1963. In other words, is this record something you can understand in a flash but listen to forever? Is it both art and kitsch? It’s a profound question, one that has resonated through the subsequent history of art and popular culture.

Sonny Bono understood. Two years later, he recorded “I Got You, Babe” with Cherilyn Sarkisian, one of Spector’s backup singers, launching two very dissimilar but remarkable careers. Andy Warhol understood. He once wrote, “The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second…all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.” Donald Judd understood. What could be dumber than his arrays of shiny boxes and his brightly-painted wall reliefs?

And “Da Doo Ron Ron” was dumb enough. There is no more joyous piece of noise in Western music—except perhaps Spector’s next record with The Crystals, “Then He Kissed Me.” I can still remember where I was the first time I heard it: stopped at a traffic light on West 39th Street at Degnan Blvd. as I was driving to a class at the University of Southern California. I pulled over to the side of the road so I could concentrate more intently on the song coming from the radio. It was Magnificent Montague’s morning show on KGFJ, the black music radio station in Los Angeles, also home to afternoon deejay Johnny Magnus (playing “the pick of the pack in wax and shellac,” the first Los Angeles deejay to play Bob Dylan) and evening deejay Hunter Hancock, the Alan Freed of Los Angeles. Montague would exhort his teenage callers to yell over the air, “I just want you to burn” (not, as later legend would have it, “Burn, baby, burn”), and The Crystals were burning that morning.

But apparently Spector’s later recording of “River Deep, Mountain High” with Tina Turner wasn’t dumb enough. Although many people consider it Spector’s greatest record (and some the greatest pop record of all time), it was his biggest flop, reaching no higher than #88 on the pop charts (although it reached #3 on the English charts). Nor was “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).” It never made the charts: he withdrew it from circulation because its lyrics evoking what we now call “domestic violence” were too remote from the romantic sensibilities of American popular music in the early ‘60s.

My interest in these two records and in Spector was reawakened by two recent English films in which they serve pivotal roles. The films are very different, but each is fascinating. Vikram Jayanti’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (2008) is simply a portrait of Spector in 2007 as he faces his first trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson four years earlier. “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” is the first sound we hear in the film, and “River Deep, Mountain High” is treated more extensively than any of Spector’s other records. Adam Curtis’ It Felt Like a Kiss (2009), an impressionistic history of the ‘60s, takes its title from one song, and its most intense (and fastest) montage is built around the other. It is Curtis’ first film without voiceover narration and a thesis that can be easily summarized in a few sentences; it is also his first film in which pop music becomes a subject and not just a part of the montage.

Both films claim for Spector a stature that nobody in the American press would accord him today. In the US, Spector is just another weird has-been ex-celebrity who is also a convicted murderer. Why was he famous once? He produced overblown pop records back in the ‘60s and he ran a record company that was quite successful for a few years. When the body of Lana Clarkson was found at his house on February 3, 2003, everybody knew that he had murdered her. Around Los Angeles, everyone in the music business or anyone like me who knew someone in the music business has heard stories of Spector recklessly brandishing guns. It seems as if he’s pulled a gun on everybody. He even shot out a mixing board at a recording session because the sound wasn’t loud enough. He’s pointed guns at more women than Arnold Schwarzenegger has groped.

Whatever the evidence in the case, Spector had to be indicted, tried, convicted, and imprisoned for the murder of Lana Clarkson. He had to pay for the sins of O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake. The honour of the Los Angeles judiciary system was on the line. Had Spector been acquitted, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley would not now be the Republican nominee for California Attorney General. It took two trials (the first trial in 2007 ended with a hung jury), but in April 2009, he was convicted of second-degree murder, and in May given a prison sentence of 19 years to life. He is now serving that sentence at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran. He will become eligible for parole in 2028 when he will be 88 years old.

Jayanti’s film is a “talking head” documentary about a sacred monster, like James Toback’s Tyson (2008). For most of the film, Spector talks and the camera doesn’t move, save an occasional zoom or a slight reframing. This monologue was filmed at Spector’s home in Alhambra on March 25, 2007, near the start of his first trial. There is also video footage from the trial, a few old performance clips, and some excerpts from an earlier interview filmed in 1977.

From these elements, Jayanti weaves a complex montage. Most of the sound from the trial footage is suppressed; only occasionally do we hear the attorneys and witnesses, who are identified not by name, but only by their role in the proceedings. The only other element on the soundtrack is Spector’s music: 19 records he produced from 1958 to 1972 played in their entirety, and excerpts from two others, sometimes accompanied by subtitles that present critical commentaries by Mick Brown taken from his Spector biography Tearing Down the Wall of Sound.

The trial is treated as farce. Of course, the lawyers are not as eloquent as their fictional counterparts in film and television. Speaking in complete sentences is a struggle. The prosecutor is young and earnest, and he seems a bit dim. The defense attorney is overbearing. The expert witnesses seem smug and complacent. With his shaved head, the judge looks scary, like a Marine drill sergeant, although he seems to be always smiling. Spector himself looks frail and glum, his right hand trembling almost constantly. Jayanti gives more time to the defense than to the prosecution, but the film does not demonstrate Spector’s innocence, as some of his defenders have claimed. It doesn’t introduce any evidence or testimony from outside of the trial proceedings. It does begin with Spector’s complaints about the jury: “I’m in the hands of 12 people who voted for George Bush…Forty-five percent of them wrote down [on the jury questionnaire] they believe I was guilty and 20 percent wrote down I’m insane.” And the judge: “He’s just a mean son of a bitch who doesn’t like me.” But these remarks hardly prove Spector’s innocence.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector doesn’t set out to prove Spector’s innocence (or guilt), but allows him to speak without judging or contradicting him, and it certainly elicits sympathy for him. As the cliché goes, Jayanti “lobs softballs” at him, but a conversation (or, in this case, a monologue) is usually more illuminating than an interrogation.

What kind of impression does Spector make? As my friend Eric Otto said, “I wouldn’t want to have dinner with him, but I’d love to eavesdrop from the next table.” Of course, that’s the promise of movies, and Jayanti’s film delivers.

Spector intends to be outrageous, scandalous, larger than life, and he succeeds. But he is hardly endearing. When he compares himself to Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Modigliani, and Bach, it’s impossible to determine the level of irony he intends. Many will find his complaint that he never received an honourary degree (unlike Bill Cosby or Bob Dylan) or a postage stamp in his honour (unlike Buddy Holly) ludicrous, but I am not among them.

I believe him when he says, “I never considered myself an outsider…I always wanted to be accepted by the establishment.” In his heyday, rock and roll hadn’t become respectable yet. It was still the music of working-class teenagers, so it was beyond the ken of even pop-culture criticism. He developed a truculence back then that never softened. In the ‘60s, he probably would have been happy to be accepted as another Gershwin or Cole Porter; now it has to be Bach or Michelangelo. His gun fetishism, his “crazy” stunts (like his move to a “castle” east of Los Angeles in Alhambra, a small city populated mostly by Chinese immigrants, which perfected his image as a recluse even as he continued to frequent music industry haunts), and his stubborn defense of despised public figures (such as Lenny Bruce and Ike Turner) helped to deny him the respectability that eventually enveloped all of his contemporaries.

I find it harder to forgive his lack of generosity toward his collaborators, with the exception of Tina Turner, John Lennon, and George Harrison, whose fame demands that they be mentioned favourably. “I always was looking for Tina…Since I was a kid I was looking for Tina,” he says. Before she came along, “Every artist I ever recorded couldn’t do shit on stage.” So it wasn’t just her voice, as Jayanti suggests: “I just wanted an act that could…go on to the Ed Sullivan show and destroy the Beatles…and live up to the reputation of a great record.” It’s as if he created the music with a bunch of interchangeable composers, musicians, and singers. He says, “My artists, any one of them could have been replaced by either one. Because the production always carried the power of the art. It was always in the recording.”

This simply isn’t true. He discovered great singers, and he selected just the right one for each song. If he had adopted the Motown strategy of grooming his singers as performers (with choreographers and a finishing school), Barbara Alston, Darlene Love, La La Brooks, and Veronica Bennett could have become as famous as Diana Ross or Martha Reeves. Ike Turner had already done this for Tina; he ran a successful revue for years before discovering her. And what about Jack Nitzsche, who did the arrangements on all of Spector’s best records? We may never know how much credit he deserves for Spector’s art. Certainly we won’t get the answer from Spector.

On the other hand, his denigration of rivals and detractors is absurd enough to be engaging. Of Brian Wilson, he says, “I’d like to have a nickel for every joint he smoked trying to figure out how I got the ‘Be My Baby’ sound. He’s demented about it.” He dismisses Wilson’s masterpiece “Good Vibrations”: “It’s not a great record, it’s an edit record.” Of Paul McCartney, who has often criticized Spector’s salvage work on Let It Be, he says, “He’s got me mixed up with somebody who gives a shit.”

The words never falter, they pour out in a stream of eloquence. But sometimes the masks slip away, revealing the hurt little boy inside, abandoned by a father who killed himself when the son was nine years old. Thus the most poignant moments come early as we hear “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” the 1958 hit inspired by the inscription on his father’s tombstone. Never again would the pain in his music be so close to the surface. “Nobody knew it was about my father, and nobody knew it was about death, and it was a love song to somebody up beyond,” he claims. In fact we did know. I remember reading about the song’s inspiration in Time, but it was mentioned as another reason the song deserved ridicule. I always loved the song, but I still had convinced myself that it was hopelessly bathetic. Now it seems simply elegiac and beautiful. It’s heartbreaking to watch a teenage Spector, still unformed, strumming a guitar and singing the refrain “And I do and I…” over and over. He still might have become a different person. “Why can’t he see? How blind can he be?” These are questions we still might ask about Spector today, maybe even questions he asks himself.

Spector is fascinating, but the movie comes alive because of his music. The titles commenting on the songs are a bit awkward, but this convention solves the problem that haunted Ken Burns’ film on jazz: you can talk over Civil War photographs, you can talk over footage of baseball games (indeed, we’ve come to expect it), but you can’t talk over music. I don’t always agree with Mick Brown. He considers “River Deep, Mountain High” grandiose and overbearing. “You could be enthralled by it, moved by it, but you could never love it,” he writes. Well, I love it. On the other hand, Karina Longworth in the LA Weekly characterizes his commentary as “beyond-hyperbolic” and “laughably effusive.” Is rational critical debate possible here? I think not. All I can say is I pity the fool with a hole in her soul.

There are no images of Spector in It Felt Like a Kiss, just his music. Adam Curtis tells the stories of four songs from the ‘60s, two produced by Spector, one by his rival Brian Wilson, and one by Lou Reed, stories like many others he tells that reveal the pain and suffering hidden under the bright surface of a nightmare decade—at least that is Curtis’ view of it.

Here are the titles that accompany “River Deep, Mountain High” (with punctuation added): “Phil Spector hated rock music and self expression. It was destroying the beautiful world of pop. He decided to write the most perfect pop song ever. It was about Love, Rag Dolls, Puppies, and Passion. Tina Turner wanted it to be a hit so that she could have a solo career and escape being beaten by her husband Ike. But the song only reached 88 in the top 100. Tina Turner tried to commit suicide. Phil Spector became a recluse. He locked his wife in a cupboard [i.e., a closet] and watched Citizen Kane again and again.”

Thanks to the power and emotional resonance of American pop music, Curtis was able to realize Eisenstein’s dream of an intellectual, dialectical montage, making Eisenstein’s own efforts seem rudimentary. “River Deep, Mountain High” is the climax of this montage, recapitulating the major motifs of the film. Curtis matches the intensity of the song with an onrush of images that becomes so swift it stretches the boundaries of human cognition. Somehow it made me realize that “River Deep, Mountain High” is actually quite surreal. Tina Turner sings of an overpowering romantic love by comparing it to the love a girl feels for her rag doll or the love a puppy feels for a young boy. But she sings with such conviction and the music rages so fiercely that we don’t notice how banal the analogies are. Maybe Mick Brown would rethink his assessment of the record if he saw this movie.

Spector-like, I watch It Felt Like a Kiss over and over, but I don’t lock my wife in the closet. (Actually I’ve never seen a closet that locks from the outside). What lessons did Spector draw from Citizen Kane? If you’re going to be a recluse, do it alone? Female companions ask pointless questions and make annoying demands? As I watch It Felt Like a Kiss, I am enthralled, but I wonder, “Is this my history, is this the hidden story of my life?”

Some of what he shows is familiar to me. There’s Khrushchev and Nixon, Moscow 1959, “the kitchen debate.” That Khrushchev with his funny hat is such a ham. Nixon can hardly get a word in edgewise. He’s straining to be polite, he’s smiling, but you can see he wants to kill that old Khrushchev. He’d like to play Tweety to Khrushchev’s Sylvester. There’s Herman Kahn, talking placidly about the prospect of thermonuclear war: “If you say there’s 90 million dead, then there are 90 million alive, and that’s a big nation.” Thanks, Herman. The assassinations of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy loom large. Curtis has some fun with the controversies that came to enshroud these killings, setting an explication of “the single bullet theory” to “The Madison Time.” He doesn’t believe in conspiracies, but he is fascinated by conspiracy theories.

The Spector song “(He Hit Me) It Felt Like a Kiss” brings us into Vietnam. A monk sets himself on fire to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the Ngo Dinh Diem regime. Of course, I had seen the photographs and film footage, but the clips were always shorter. I realized how much American television censors just by compression. If we had been allowed to see 20 seconds more of this film, the Vietnam War might have ended ten years sooner.

There’s a lot of dancing, but never has it seemed so mirthless, so desperate. A chimpanzee dances the Locomotion and then takes off into space as Roy Orbison sings “In Dreams.” Below in the Congolese jungle where the chimp was born, Patrice Lumumba is captured and murdered. I don’t think I’d ever before seen this footage of the proud, defiant Lumumba facing death with such great dignity. Events in the Congo after it attained independence were widely reported in the US, but Lumumba was the enemy, another Castro, and anything that might have turned our sympathy toward him was suppressed.

I wasn’t aware of what was going on in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. I didn’t realize how closely a pre-moustache Saddam Hussein resembled Lee Harvey Oswald. He could have been his older brother. Too bad about that Iraq coup of 1963 that overthrew the government of Abd al-Karim Qasim and paved the way for Hussein’s rise to power. I guess I was too distracted by the Vietnam War to notice it. The World Trade Center goes up, Bob Dylan sings “Love Minus Zero,” and at the same time, in Saudi Arabia, billionaire contractor Mohammed bin Laden builds a new road to Mecca, along which 12 of the 19 September 11 hijackers would be born and brought up. I certainly didn’t know what his son Osama bin Laden was doing in the ‘60s. He was watching Bonanza on television while the Manson family was setting up camp in the show’s abandoned sets.

The Manson followers talking about peace and non-violence are the only people in the film with whom I could identify. So beautiful, so dumb. I wasn’t that beautiful, but was I that dumb? For all the good it did me or anyone else, I might as well have been. I knew something was happening, but I didn’t know what it was. Haunted by the Herman Kahn scenario that gave me only a 50 percent chance of growing into adulthood, I couldn’t understand the past because I couldn’t conceive of a future. There was an adult world to which I had to adapt, but it was static, already given. I knew nothing of dialectics.

Curtis is fascinated by dialectics, although he calls it “unintended consequences,” a concept similar to the CIA idea of “blowback.” “History is a series of unintended consequences resulting from confused actions,” he told Errol Morris in 2005. John Kennedy tried to assassinate Castro, and in retaliation Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Kennedy. The CIA helped destabilize the Lumumba-led government in the Congo, and amid the chaos and bloodshed of the civil war that followed, the HIV virus spread unnoticed. The US organized a coup in Iraq that brought Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party to power, and…everybody knows what happened later, so Curtis leaves it unsaid. “The computers that controlled the Cold War and guided the rockets to the moon were put to a new use. They started to analyze the credit data of all Americans so that in the future everyone could be lent money. And buy whatever they wanted. And be happy.” Again we know how that project worked out.

Curtis’ version of the dialectic is more Hegelian than Marxist. In Marx’s dialectical materialism, ideas are consigned to the superstructure. They are by-products of economic relations. In Curtis’ vision, inspired by Max Weber, ideas are decisive. In his conversation with Morris, he said, “Ideas have consequences. People have experiences out of which they form ideas. And these ideas have an effect on the world.” In his earlier films, he seemed to propose a new Great Man theory of history, but with men of ideas—quite often men most of us had never heard of—replacing the traditional historical actors.

In It Felt Like a Kiss, men of action have returned. The only man of ideas featured is Norman Mailer, excoriating the proposed World Trade Center in 1964: “The skyline of Manhattan…is the finest thing capitalism’s ever built. It’s like a mountain range. It’s absolutely beautiful. They’re going to put up two one-hundred-storey buildings…right at the tip of it…When you look at the New York skyline five years from now, you see these two enormous fangs coming up. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with the mood or the environment. I think anything that shatters mood, generally speaking, is working for the devil.” But not even Curtis would argue that Mailer had any influence on Osama bin Laden or his confederates.

In all of Curtis’ historical essay films, there are assertions and choices that are arguable. Although this more impressionistic collage portrait of the ‘60s is for me his best film yet, it is no exception. It purports to show the confidence of the early ‘60s (“the beautiful world of pop”) turning sour, but already in 1959 Lou Reed had been forced to undergo electric shock therapy, and in 1962 Carole King had written the darkest pop song of the decade, “(He Hit Me) It Felt Like a Kiss.” It is really just one horror after another, but it is exhilarating to watch because of Curtis’ musical choices and his boldness as an historian.

In The Trap (2007), Curtis gives voice to an eloquent ideal of individual political freedom, but its realization seems impossibly remote. In his work, there is no sense of class struggle, just decisions made by rulers and imposed on the people. Yet, although Curtis is a cynical Hegelian rather than a Marxist, his vision of history in many ways satisfies the demands placed upon historical materialism by Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Curtis has no empathy for the rulers. He is on the side of Lumumba and the monks who protested against Diem and his American backers, and he presents images that give their courage and fortitude “a retroactive force” that constantly calls into question “every victory, past and present, of the rulers.” He rejects the notion that historians must blot out everything they know about the future course of events in order to understand and recreate a past era, a concept which Benjamin regards as the decisive tenet of historicism from which historical materialism must break. The historicists also claim that the truth will not run away from us, but Benjamin and Curtis know that the “past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.” Writing history “means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”

“Every day thousands of things happened to thousands of people. Some seemed to be significant, and others did not,” writes Curtis in It Felt Like a Kiss. He wants to reclaim some of the seemingly insignificant events not only because some of these had retroactive significance, but also because, in Benjamin’s words, “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” A woman smokes a cigarette and stares off into space. Fortunately her image was recorded and preserved. Curtis finds it and inserts it into his montage. Now she bears witness to her times. For me, this image, and many others like it in the film, carries a utopian hope. As Benjamin writes: “only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past.”

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