For nearly a half-century, Phil Spector loomed over popular culture as a visionary musician, songwriter, producer, and show-business impresario.
Topping the multitude of innovations and accomplishments for which Spector was revered was the “Wall of Sound,” his recording technique that brought the emotional sweep and orchestral grandeur of high opera to three-minute rock-and-roll songs that defined their generation and continue to live forever.Related: These 7 Grammy Winners Were Busted for Major Crimes
For all of Spector’s spectacular pop wizardry, though, he also reportedly sported a terrifying dark and violent streak, heightened by his love of firearms. In fact, multiple artists with whom Spector collaborated — including John Lennon, Debbie Harry, Leonard Cohen, and the Ramones — said the producer held them at gunpoint.
In her 1989 memoir Be My Baby, Ronettes vocalist Ronnie Spector recounts her six-year marriage to Phil as a monstrous cavalcade of abuse in which he beat and tortured her, held her captive, and routinely threatened to shoot her to death. Fifteen years later, Spector’s adopted sons Gary and Donte stated that Phil kept them in cages and forced them to have sex with women while he watched.
Finally, on February 3, 2003, Phil Spector definitively reinvented himself in the worst manner imaginable: as a murderer.That night, Hollywood actress Lana Clarkson, best known for her title turn in the 1985 B-movie favorite Barbarian Queen, met up with Spector at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. From there, Spector’s driver took the pair back to Spector’s mansion in Alhambra and witnessed them go inside.
About an hour later, the chauffeur testified that he heard a gunshot and saw Phil Spector run outside with a pistol in his hand, saying, “I think I’ve killed someone.” That someone was Lana Clarkson, who lay dead in the mansion from a single gunshot wound to the mouth. Blood and broken teeth surrounded her.
Later, Spector claimed Clarkson accidentally shot herself. Years of legal proceedings followed. Finally, on April 13, 2008, a jury found Phil Spector guilty of second-degree murder. He’s been imprisoned ever since.
The specter of Phil Spector, as it were, has shaped and informed all manner of art and entertainment from his earliest girl-group smashes up to his parade of bizarre wigs on trial, as well as each eccentric detail of his life along the way that has come to light.
The following movie and TV characters arise from that collective perception of Phil Spector — some directly, some with artistic flourish, but all unmistakably.
BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970)
SPECTOR STAND-IN: Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar)
As its ad campaign makes clear, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is “not a sequel” to the smash 1967 pill-popping melodrama Valley of the Dolls — it’s “an equal.”
In fact, this phantasmagoric collaboration of breast-obsessed cult filmmaker Russ Meyer and his screenwriting bosom buddy Roger Ebert — yes, Pulitzer-Prize-winning movie reviewer — is a motion picture experience quite like none other. Ebert did well in describing BVD as “the first rock-camp-horror-exploitation musical.”
BVD chronicles the volcanic rise and eruptive comeuppance of the Carrie Nations, an all-female rock band that moves to Hollywood and falls under the spell of Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell.
Z-Man is a beyond-flamboyant record producer, scene-maker, and agent of chaos modeled on the image of Phil Spector and played by John Lazar like a supernova combination of Caligula, Liberace, and King Arthur’s nemesis, the Black Knight.
To reveal more regarding BVD would be to diminish its treasure trove of berserk pleasures, the impact of which is perfect summed when Z-Man surveys one of his very Phil Spector–esque show-biz bacchanals and declares, “This is my happening — and it freaks me out!” [Roger Ebert]
PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)
SPECTOR STAND-IN: Swan (Paul Williams)
With talent and charisma exploding out of his barely five-foot-tall frame, Paul Williams became one of the most unlikely music superstars of the 1970s.
In addition to writing a multitude of hits for everyone from the Carpenters to Kermit the Frog (and, later, Daft Punk), Williams scored movies and regularly performed on TV, clocking in more than 50 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show alone.
While penning his future cult classic Phantom of the Paradise, writer-director Brian De Palma did not have Williams in mind to play the Luciferian record producer and music -biz honcho who, not coincidentally, was initially named “Spectre.”
That changed, De Palma said, when he saw Williams walk off an elevator in Hollywood. The petite powerhouse was wearing a cape, smoking a cigar, and was flanked by two leggy female admirers. De Palma says he thought, “Rock-and-roll Napoleon,” and immediately reached out to Williams to play the part.
For obvious legal reasons, the studio insisted the name of the evil, megalomaniacal rock mastermind be changed from “Spectre.” Williams, then, ended up playing “Swan,” the all-powerful head of Death Records who aims to conquer the planet by way of a female diva and his new rock palace, the Paradise. Swan also exhibits no qualms about committing murder to complete this mission — damning himself to hell in the process. [Esquire]
SPECTOR STAND-IN: Dick “Magic Ears” Knubbler (Brendon Small)
Adult Swim’s outrageous animated series Metalocalypse follows the mayhem and misadventures of Dethklok, an extreme death-metal band that also happens to be the most popular music entity in human history.
Dick “Magic Ears” Knubbler, voiced by Brendon Small, is a louder-than-life music producer and engineer brought in to oversee the making of Dethklok’s albums. Knubbler’s bug eyes and whacked-out demeanor immediately bring to mind Phil Spector. So, too, does his wicked reputation and violent past, which, in the cartoon’s case, includes mangling a coworker’s face with acid. [Dethklok Wiki]
THE PHIL SPECTOR INCIDENT: I THINK I JUST SHOT HER (2011)
SPECTOR STRAIGHT-UP: Phil Spector (Solomon King)
The Phil Spector Incident is an ultra-obscure pet project of L.A. musician Solomon King, who claims to have been at the House of Blues on the night Lana Clarkson went home with Phil Spector. In fact, King has stated, “I might’ve been the last person to see Lana Clarkson alive besides Phil and the chauffeur.” Sure thing, Sol.
King himself plays Spector in full blond fright wig, franticly playing out what he imagines the hour-or-so of kinky mind games might have been that led up to that gun going off in Lana Clarkson’s face (King remarked of his performance, “The wig and the five-thousand-dollar designer suit helped get me into character!”).
Nubile newcomer Monica Lee — “fresh off the bus from Michigan” — costars as Clarkson. Veteran adult-video maker Roy Karch directs with the subtle touch you’d expect. [Huffington Post]
PHIL SPECTOR (2013)
SPECTOR STRAIGHT-UP: Al Pacino plays Spector
Al Pacino delivers a tour-de-force in the title role of Phil Spector, an HBO movie based on the music producer’s life following the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson. Helen Mirren costars as Spector’s defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden.
As scripted by peerless playwright David Mamet, an opening title card assures viewers that Phil Spector is “fiction” inspired by the facts of the case.
The film itself presents no argument regarding Spector’s guilt or innocence in the killing. Instead, the entire production brings to vivid life how, in the one-of-a-kind, (literally) wigged-out world of Phil Spector, insane triumphs and unspeakable tragedies could — and did — crop up at any moment. [NPR]
To learn more about Phil Spector, watch Investigation Discovery’s “Legend With a Bullet: Phil Spector” episode of Vanity Fair Confidential on ID GO.
Main photo: From Phil Spector (2013) — Helen Mirren and Al Pacino/HBO publicity photo [promotional image]