THE MEN: Reviews of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector; Brotherhood; and Get Low

I saw Ken Russell’s version of the rock opera Tommy the other night (can you say “camp”) and was talking to my friend Beriau about it the next day. I commented that even though the movie doesn’t work (in fact one can make a case that it’s really so bad, even Perry Mason couldn’t defend it before a jury), by the time it was over, you felt so up and wonderful that the awfulness of the film quickly became a distant memory. As Beriau pointed out, the reason was the music, which was beautifully recorded and sung (with an amazing cameo by Tina Turner that got applause that night). I realized he was right. It was the same thing for the movie Mama Mia!, a really terrible film, but at the same time, you were so entertained and enthralled by it all; and the reason again was the music. I mention this because this same sort of reasoning could be applied to some degree to The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, a documentary about the great music impresario and his trial for manslaughter.

I say to some degree because the movie is not awful, in fact it’s a quite interesting and, in many ways, very well done. It is problematic and there are some serious issues about the director Vikram Javanti’s approach. But whatever the problems, at the same time, one didn’t care because the movie was carpeted, and wall to wall at that, with recordings and videos of the songs that Phil Spector either wrote, partially wrote or produced (both Spector and Javanti are a bit vague about credits, one of the problematics referred to). Spector rose to fame and wealth by producing a new sound, a melodic rock and roll style known for its hummability and beauty, all about teenage angst and the inability to find someone to love, or when one does, letting the emotion overwhelm you (To Know Him is to Love Him; You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling; Spanish Harlem; culminating with the great Rivers Deep, Mountain High, performed with flashes of lightning by the aforementioned Tina Turner). He also produced songs and albums for the Beatles, including Let it Be.

When the documentary is not focusing on the music, it is divided between a one on one interview with Spector himself, as well as scenes from his trial for the death of Lana Clarkson, an actress/waitress he picked up at a nightclub. It’s hard to know how to react to Spector himself. His name is perhaps euphoniously appropriate. He looks, if not a ghost of himself, a ghost of someone, equipped with a watery, lazy eye and a slurring voice. And he comes across as somewhat mad. He spends much of his time defending himself from attacks others have made against him his whole life; from not receiving the recognition he felt he should have (this from someone living in a palatial estate few of us could ever dream of owning and someone who has made more money that many of us could ever make, even if reincarnation was a reality); and from the charges of having killed Clarkson. Though Javanti does ask questions and leads the interview, he pretty much lets Spector have his own way. Probably not a wise decision on Spector’s part, because the more he tries to defend himself, the more unsympathetic he becomes and the madder he comes across; he would have been perfect for the part in Alice in Wonderland (and he could have provided his own hair pieces, though Spector claims he still has his own hair, a claim as preposterous as his innocence). To quote a couple of clichés, he’s like a train wreck in slow motion or a motor accident you can’t look away from. The more he claims he isn’t guilty, the more you want to put him in jail and throw away the key. It’s an absolutely fascinating self portrait of a sociopath, who, like so many sociopaths, are so sociopathic they don’t realize how sociopathic they appear.

Javanti was at the screening for a Q&A and his statements and responses to some of the questions do demonstrate the problematic areas of the film. In the film, when Spector is talking about the song To Know Him Is To Love Him, Spector says it was about his father who shot himself when Spector was four; Javanti pointed out afterwards that Spector’s father gassed himself in the garage when Spector was ten. These sorts of inaccuracies are never pointed out during the movie interview. Spector at times seems to claim he had more to do with the creation of the songs he produced than he did; Javanti never challenges it (nor points out the writers of the songs when he subtitles their names during the video sections). When someone in the audience congratulated Javanti on being fair in showing both sides of the trial, all I could think was, “were we watching the same movie”? Javanti stated that he believed that Spector might have been at fault, but it was never proven at the trial. Well, we in the audience don’t really have a way of judging that, really. Much of the court case is devoted to the defense’s attack on the angle of the bullet through Clarkson’s head, that since it went upward, that wasn’t the angle a bullet would go if someone else other than Clarkson was holding the gun. Javanti never shows the scenes where the prosecutors respond to this. More insightful, perhaps, to Javanti’s approach, is that during the interview Javanti asks Spector about a piano that’s in the room. Before Spector gets up, he has Javanti turn off the cameras, but in the film, it’s never explained why. At the Q&A, Javanti reveals that he through it was because Spector was not very tall and didn’t want anyone to know. A funny anecdote until you think, “Huh, maybe this is why the bullet went at an upward angle, because Spector was so short”. Add to that Javanti’s anecdote about Spector’s refusal to admit that he wears hair pieces, and it just seems that the documentary had a few too many glaring omissions. At the same time, it was fascinating. And there was all that glorious music.

Brotherhood is a movie that shouldn’t work, but does. It’s about two neo-Nazis who are gay and fall in love. It sounds like it should be a Mel Brooks film or on one of those lists about the worst movie ideas pitched to a studio. But the writers Nicolo Donato, who also directed, and Rasmus Birch, along with the two lead actors, Thure Lindhardt and David Dencik, work very hard to make the somewhat preposterous set up work. Lindhardt plays Lars, a Danish officer who is relieved of duty when he gets drunk and puts the moves on some of his men; the army believes he will never be able to recover the respect of those he commands. Through a friend, he ends up at a party for members of a neo-Nazi movement that has grown out of the conflict over the increasing number of immigrants moving into Denmark. This is the weakest part of the film. It’s never really believable that Lars would join the group, something he initially finds offensive. The head of the group appeals to his vanity by telling Lars they are in need of people as intelligent as Lars is (apparently the movement is a tad light in the brains department and the authors don’t do anything to prove otherwise), but it’s never quite clear why he becomes part of the group. However, the filmmakers somehow get you past this section and once they do, the story does grab you. Jimmy is a member of the group who is rehabbing a house at the ocean that will be used for meetings and out of town guests. He doesn’t like Lars, at first because of his anti-Nazi stance, but then because Lars rises too quickly in respect, even gaining membership before Jimmy’s brother does (whose drug addiction and slacknerness tend to work against him). Lars moves into the ocean house and helps Jimmy work on it, but the two find that they are attracted to each other and soon they do the deed. Talk about meet cute, and you’re right, you’ve guessed it. This is really a neo-Nazi, Danish Brokeback Mountain. But no matter what one makes of it, one can’t help but get all caught up in the predicament these two characters find themselves in. They can hardly reveal what is really going on to the others and neither of them know how to resolve the situation. And they have a point. Just how do you resolve a situation like this? Lars wants to take off, but, like the mob, you don’t just leave the Nazi party. And when Jimmy’s brother sees them in bed together and blows the whistle, the suspense becomes unbearable. Much of the success of this section of the movie has to be attributed to Dencik’s intense and searing performance. You shouldn’t feel sorry for him, he’s a Nazi for God’s sake, but he is so riveting in dramatizing the characters inner struggle, that your heart does go out to him. You even want these two to somehow find a happy ending. But it’s not to be as the story concludes with an action that is perhaps a bit too much The Postman Always Rings Twice for my taste. Lars and Jimmy are beaten up and told to leave town, but before they can, Jimmy is stabbed by a gay man he had set up and bashed earlier. He doesn’t die, but ends up in a coma he may never come out of. It’s shocking, but it’s a bit arbitrary. Still, it is heartbreaking.

Get Low, directed by Aaron Schneider and written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell from a story by Provenzano and Scott Seeks, is one of those movies that you can tell the instant it stops working. Robert Duvall plays Felix Bush, a hermit who hasn’t left his home in forty years due to some incident that took place when he was younger. He’s come to the conclusion he may soon die, but decides he wants to have his funeral first and invites everybody far and wide to come and tell a story about him and to have a party. The backstory is a little unclear. Apparently, even though he hasn’t seen anyone for forty years, people have all these tales about him; one character even assaults him in town for something he did, but since the character wasn’t even born at the time Bush started the hermit thing, one has to wonder what Bush could possibly have done to him. In fact, what people know about him seems to be somewhat arbitrary, depending on when it best helps the plot. In the last third of the movie everyone comes to Bush’s place for his funeral party and…not one of them tells a single story; there’s no real party; and this is the moment where the movie stops working. Instead, Bush tells the story as to why he became a hermit. The problem here is that when he does, your reaction is, “so why did you become a hermit; I’m not sure I understand?”. The first two thirds of the movie are actually quite entertaining, but the last third is what might be called just a tad anti-climactic. It’s like the novel Heart of Darkness; it’s great until you get to the end of the journey and meet Kurtz and then it’s all somewhat of a letdown. Robert Duvall is a natural for this sort of thing and he is excellent. But the highlight of the film has to be Bill Murray as a cynical funeral home owner who finds something of a conscious along the way. His line readings steal the show. Also giving an effective performance is Lucas Black, the hero who is trying to just understand the ridiculous situation. Sissy Spacek is along for the ride, but she doesn’t really have anything to do, or at least anything worthy of a star of her caliber. It’s a beautiful movie to look with fine period feel to it all, but it just sort of runs out of steam at the end.

So tell me what you think.

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