Phil Spector, David Mamet, and the Artifice of Biopic

Before David Mamet’s Phil Spector gets underway, the director is careful to remind us that the preceding movie is just that, a movie. As the black screen and white text remind us of this, Mamet reinforces the film’s inherit phoniness. The viewer is not seeing events panning out live, but rather they are watching a dramatic interpretation of the trial of Phil Spector starring Al Pacino. But this warning is redundant. Of course we know it’s a movie. So why does Mamet insist on reminding us?

Mamet frequently tests the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Throughout the film, Phil Spector resembles real life, but only an interpretation of real life. Sets are sparse, lighting is exceedingly bright or awkwardly dark, and the performances bounce from the brutally naturalistic to the strictly stilted. All the while, Mamet parades his irrefutable proof for Spector’s innocence. But, again, it’s all fake.

Phil Spector Disclaimer

HBO and Mamet remind us that this movie is a movie.

Spector is highlighted by a number of factors that construct a case for Spector’s innocence. This proof is then held against the artifice of the film. Still, Mamet dares his audience to accept his fake interpretation as real. Pacino grabs the viewer with a sympathetic and infectious performance, while Mirren and Tambor sell Mamet’s script, detailing the reasons for Spector’s acquittal. Throughout the movie, Mamet makes careful use of the idea of playacting, dramatization, and who we are on and off the camera. In a sense, the audience becomes the jury, and the movie is a courtroom recreation.

Mamet directs an engaging film, yet while the script and performances capture this energy, the director downplays his settings. Linda Baden and Bruce Cutler (Mirren and Tambor, respectively) work in the empty wing of a hotel, which looks far too sparse to be the actual headquarters of one of the most infamous murder cases ever. It looks more like a stage, showcasing the actors as performers, not lawyers.

Set and TV

The set is empty and deep, like a stage, and Mirren and Tambor walk over to the performance already in progress.

The staginess of the scene becomes all the clearer when they turn on the TV. There, dressed as Little Richard, is Meghan Marx, an actress playing Lana Clarkson playing Little Richard. There are layers of artifice here. First, of course there Marx playing Lana Clarkson. Then, Lana Clarkson, herself a Hollywood actress, plays two roles on the TV: an interviewer and Little Richard. All this playacting only calls attention to how ridiculous Mamet’s staging can be. It’s not that he wants us to believe any of this. It’s that he wants to remind us that when the cameras are on, people aren’t who they say they are. Lana isn’t Little Richard, just as Meghan isn’t Lana.

Who people are in private and public spaces make a huge difference in the world of Phil Spector. As its lead, Al Pacino blends the two very nicely, creating a calm, intelligent, and vulnerable Spector when wandering around his castle and a tense, detached persona for the courtroom. To the public, he’s a weird, guilty curmudgeon, an artifact of a bygone era. But, to that same token, when Mirren watches a video of Spector at the peak of his powers, he seems more collected but twice as violent. Lashing out at musicians and firing his pistol when they don’t play to his standards. When the two are in private, though, Spector dominates the conversation with rational insight on his fame, the past, and music. The many sides of Phil Spector play a huge part in the film, because, as Mirren says, he’s not the same person before the court as he was in front of The Beatles.

The court, however, tries to separate these things. Most of the plot follows Linda’s attempts to recreate the murder for the jury, attempts the court thwarts. They stick to testimony over visualization, so what people say and how they talk plays a huge role in the trial. The testimony from Phil’s driver is that Phil, after Lana had been shot, walked outside and said, “I think I just killed somebody.” Phil, on the other hand, claims he said, “I think I should call somebody.” It’s Phil’s word against the driver that matters. As Linda keeps reiterating, they’re putting him on trial for OJ, and they don’t want another bloody glove. Instead of allowing Phil to present evidence, like an unstained suit and crippling arthritis that prevents him from holding a gun, they go on testimony both from this case and prior incidents.

Mamet reaches his climax in an amalgamation of all of his ideas about the real world, acting, persona, and reality. After other attempts to recreate the scene before the court fail, Spector suggests testifying, but given his unstable state, the risks of incriminating himself run high. To prep, Linda creates a mock courtroom, complete with actors playing judge and jury. Spector plays his own executioner, though, as Mamet’s manic camera work and Pacino’s explosive performance sell us on a man out of touch with reality. He can’t control his emotions when his ex-wife is brought up, despite recognizing that he is in a mock trial. He emotes as if it were real, screaming at his actors and slipping in and out of the past. Clearly, if he can’t handle himself in a fake court, how is he to make it through the real thing?

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In the end, Mamet expects the same from us. We realize the movie isn’t real, but when faced with such a heightened depiction of reality, we can’t help but be swayed in a different direction. Of course, even though the movie makes a convincing case for Spector’s innocence, we must again be reminded that this is a movie, one that starts with a reminder that none of it is real. Mamet pushes the artifice of the biopic to the limit in Phil Spector, forcing the viewer to recognize the film’s innate phoniness, emotionally and thematically, and still convince you of Spector’s innocence, which, as far as the law is concerned, isn’t real either.

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