Executive producer Barry Levinson urges viewers to think of his HBO film "Phil Spector" as a two-person play —not a docudrama about the first murder trial of the rock producer.
"It really is a two-person piece," Levinson said in a telephone interview last week. "And if you're looking for some kind of docudrama, which we are more familiar with on television, this isn't it."
The two persons, Academy Award-winners Al Pacino as Spector and Helen Mirren as his defense attorney, Linda Kenney Baden, can fill a screen like few others. Together, there are stretches in the film where it feels as if they are dancing a ballet — that's how fluid and natural the flow of energy between them seems.
And they are doing it with the words and direction of David Mamet, who gets my vote as our greatest living playwright — for "Glengarry Glen Ross" alone.
Even by HBO standards, the cast and crew for "Phil Spector" is pretty much a pop-culture dream team. And its members deliver a film worthy of their reputations and talents.
The pleasure of watching Mirren and Pacino work with Mamet's script would be more than enough to make this little 90-minute production worth going out of your way to see. But the made-for-TV movie is also one of those rare ones that leaves your mind buzzing after the final credits. Here, the thoughts are about the cultural values of rock 'n' roll, the nature of fame, guns, sexism, power, celebrity, privacy and where the docudrama ends and fiction begins.
"Look, we're not interested in a regular court thing and playing that out," Levinson says. " 'And then the prosecution does this, and then the defense countered with that.' We're not playing that. It isn't a piece that is going to examine what took place in the court and all the jockeying for evidence and all of that — it doesn't work that way. It's a Mamet-ization of the story between these two characters."
The film, which premiers at 9 p.m. Sunday, is set in 2007 in Los Angeles on the eve of Spector's first murder trial in the 2003 death of actress Lana Clarkson. The two went to Spector's L.A. mansion one night after meeting at the House of Rock, where she was a greeter. She died in Spector's home of a gunshot wound to her mouth. The trial centered on whether she put the gun there herself and pulled the trigger — or whether Spector, a gun nut by any definition of the word with a history of using weapons to threaten people, put it there and killed her.
The story of Spector and Clarkson was widely reported, so there's no need to worry about spoilers. As almost everyone knows, Spector was found guilty of second-degree murder in a second trial in 2009 and is now serving a 19-year sentence at the California State Prison in Corcoran.
Viewers follow Kenney Baden as she arrives in Los Angeles to prepare for the trial and is summoned to Spector's mansion for their first pre-trial conversation.
Mamet says he imagines the story as "The 'Beauty and The Beast,' where Helen Mirren is the beauty and Phil Spector is the beast," according to an HBO interview. That vision shapes her journey into his home and his crazed worldview.
Only there is nothing one-dimensional with this film, and I guarantee you, some viewers are not going to think it's not so crazed — even as they see Spector arriving for the last day of trial in a bizarre Afro wig, which he explains as his "homage" to Jimi Hendrix.
"Jimi Hendrix, who suffered, who was persecuted," Spector explains to his lawyer in response to her dismay at his strange appearance.
Pacino's performance is the great delight of this production. Is there any actor who takes more chances in his performances than this 72-year-old has in productions like HBO's "You Don't Know Jack," which he also did with Levinson, or "Angels in America"?
Pacino plays Spector as part monster, part egomaniac, part genius and part pathetic, frightened old man stumbling around his mansion in a smoking jacket like a low-rent Citizen Kane during his final nights in Xanadu.
"I've worked with a lot of actors, and I don't know anybody who has quite the degree of passion for acting that he does," Levinson says.
"He loves it. In other words, he has no qualms. He'll say, 'All right, I'm going to go to Broadway and do this play on Broadway. Then I'll do this little movie over here, and I'll do this thing on HBO here.' If he can find a character he wants to play, he's going to play that character. And he's as enthusiastic as somebody just starting out. He's never like, 'OK, let's just finish this thing and go home.' He'll play with things and play with things until he makes it work," says Levinson, whose work with Pacino goes back to the feature films "Donnie Brasco" in 1997 and the Baltimore-made "… And Justice For All" in 1979.
"Look, he's a great actor," Levinson says. "And you say, 'Why isn't he doing more movies?' And the answer is the movies today don't have great characters. They're these mechanical things. So for Al to really be able to get into a piece of material, he either has to go to Broadway or do an HBO piece — that's where he can really play with characters."
Levinson is right: Broadway and HBO are two of the last refuges in American popular culture for serious artists and literary drama.
HBO is not acting like "Phil Spector" is some big-deal event. Yet without being the least bit preachy or pretentious, it raises big, big media and cultural questions — not the least of which involves fact, fiction and the kinds of stories TV tells us about ourselves.
"This is a work of fiction," an onscreen prologue says. "It is not 'based on a true story.' It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome."
Some of those words are surely there at the suggestions of lawyers, but they also force viewers to think critically about what they are about to see — to question the conventions of docudrama that TV has taught us to accept with the line, "Based on a true story."
A group called Friends of Lana Clarkson wrote to me on March 6 when I first blogged about the film and expressed concern "about how Lana is portrayed." Saying members of the group had not seen the film, a spokesman asked me to share details with him, something I could not do under terms of the screening agreement.
But there was a real person named Lana Clarkson who died in the real mansion of a real guy named Phil Spector in 2003. How will this work of "fiction" affect that reality? That's a complicated question, and I can't answer it.
The takeaway for me is that "Phil Spector" is another example of television, more than any other medium, raising such questions in American life these days.
After 30 years of being told by people who claim not to watch TV that it is "dumbing down" the culture," I can't help but feel vindicated when I see films like this being made by folks like Levinson, Mamet, Pacino and Mirren.
Rather than the medium for "vidiots," as it was once called by some critics, TV has become not only the principal but also the most engaging, sophisticated and provocative storyteller in American life.
"Phil Spector" premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO, with encores.