Spector review – a complex portrait of the murderer behind pop’s most iconic songs

This four-part series about Phil Spector walks the tightrope between sensitive and salacious – and refuses to diminish the importance of Lana Clarkson, the woman he killed

When Phil Spector died in a prison hospital in January 2021, the BBC headline was “Talented but flawed producer Phil Spector dies aged 81”. Outrage ensued that the famous rock’n’roll figure, accused of abuse by myriad women, and convicted of murdering Lana Clarkson, could be defined in such breezy terms. The BBC quickly apologised, but the incident spoke to the difficulty of portraying violent creators of beloved work.

When it comes to documentaries, the tightrope between sensitive and salacious is a perilous one to walk. Last year’s We Need to Talk About Cosby and 2016’s OJ: Made in America grappled with exactly this difficulty. Both addressed the issue of how we paint a picture of remarkable achievement and its cultural impact, how to understand the behaviour of the men and the system that protected them – without excusing the heinous crimes they committed. And Spector (Sky Documentaries) seeks to do the same, as it plunges into the life of the murderer responsible for some of the most recognisable pop songs of the 20th century.

In four hour-long episodes directors Sheena M Joyce and Don Argott (makers of the documentary The Atomic States of America and the romcom Slow Learners) seek to explain not just the what but the why of the Spector story – while doing justice to the life of Clarkson. For the most part the show succeeds, and it never takes us far from Clarkson. The first episode begins with Spector’s driver’s distressed 911 phone call: he is nearly hyperventilating as he says: “I think my boss killed somebody.” This starkly contrasts with the audio of Spector at the crime scene and the eerie nonchalance of his words: “I’m sorry there’s a dead woman here … I’m sorry, but this happened.”

Spector and Ronnie Bennett in 1963, in a recording studio
Spector and Ronnie Bennett in 1963. Photograph: Sky UK Limited/Redferns

As well as a comprehensive compendium of recordings, footage and images, the documentary has assembled an impressive roster of interviewees to paint a complex portrait of a violent genius. The investigating officers, his music colleagues and beloved daughter appear alongside Clarkson’s loved ones. Most frequent are the insights of journalist Mick Brown, who was granted a rare audience with the reclusive Spector a few weeks before Clarkson was killed. His expertise bridges the man’s musical and criminal escapades but, in some respect, has an old-school view of the power dynamics in Spector’s life. When it comes to his relationship with Ronnie Bennett, the lead singer of the Ronettes (then aged 20), Brown speaks of a transactional relationship where “Ronnie wanted to be a star”. To the documentary’s credit, it goes beyond that mercenary narrative with testimony from her cousin Nedra who firmly points out, “Someone has their eye on you, and they are older than you, and they say: ‘I can do all these big things’ – you can see why that’s a big pull. But you don’t know what you are being pulled into.”

The abuse Spector suffered as a child – and went on to re-enact on many of the women in his life – is shown in tandem with the signature “wall of sound” he created, best found in the Ronettes’ Be My Baby and the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. His contribution to the music of the Crystals, Tina Turner and the Beatles is spectacular, as was his vision for music made for – and by – young people. As Spector’s former Teddy Bears bandmate, Carol Connors, states during the first episode’s conclusion: “You have to give the devil his due.”

Over the last three episodes, as well as exploring Spector’s downward spiral, we dig deeper into the life and passions of Clarkson – who was dismissed by much of the media at the time as just a “B-list movie star”, as if that rendered her murder a lesser crime. The trial is examined with a fine-tooth comb, as is its broader context. We hear how, after OJ Simpson and Robert Blake were found innocent of killing their wives, the conviction of a celebrity murderer seemed depressingly unlikely. That the California justice system punished Spector, and Clarkson’s family got the closure of justice being served, is small comfort at the end of a harrowing tale. It speaks to what makes this documentary so compelling: a refusal to diminish Clarkson’s value, plus a determination to sit in grief with those who love and miss her, and to define her as more than just a stain on Spector’s legacy.

  • Spector screens on Sky Documentaries in the UK, and is streaming on Stan in Australia.


Leila Latif

The GuardianTramp

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