Director can't get at the heart of Phil Spector in TV movie

2013-03-23T17:00:00Z 2013-04-10T21:45:27Z Director can't get at the heart of Phil Spector in TV movieBRUCE MILLER Sioux City Journal

David Mamet's take on music producer Phil Spector belongs on a stage, not a television set.

Frequently talky, often claustrophic, it has moments that could crackle under the pressure of confinement.

On TV, however, "Phil Spector" is just too easy to ignore.

Suggesting what might have happened after he was arrested for murder, the HBO film tries to get into the heads of the accused (wildly played by Al Pacino) and his attorney (Helen Mirren).

The pair try to come to some conclusion that would indicate "reasonable doubt" and get him off for a crime he says he didn't commit.

Mamet (who also directed) takes this speculation and runs with it. He gives his leading man plenty of alibis and a lot of juicy one-liners. But we're no closer to understanding Spector's odd life than anyone on his jury.

Pacino, borrowing bits from "Dick Tracy," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Scent of a Woman," doesn't give this guy anything interesting to latch onto. He's full of bluster, often lacking directorial restraint.

Mamet often lets his star get by with over-the-top line readings. A less obvious take might have helped the story and made this the unique story of one man, not an indictment of the music industry.

Throughout his tirades (walking around a set that looks like a Hard Rock museum), Pacino's Spector badmouths contemporaries, sings his own praises and pulls outrageous stunts. "I invented the music business," he rants.

Mirren's Linda Kenney Baden knows she's got a wild card. She tries to get him to rehearse (in a war room-like setting) and provide the reasonable doubt she needs.

When he turns up in the courtroom with a huge Afro ("an homage to Jimi Hendrix," he says), she practically gives up.

"Phil Spector" doesn't include minute details of the trial, just a closing card that explains what happened.

While that might fit Mamet's conceit, it robs us of seeing the result of the work that preceded it.

Mirren doesn't try to match Pacino's intensity at any point -- and that's good. If the director isn't going to reign him in, she shouldn't either. She just goes about her job, makes us care about her unenviable position and presses forward.

Both actors could thrive with this story (Pacino's a ringer for Spector) but Mamet speculates a bit too much. Had he eliminated the title character entirely, it might have been more intriguing.

Now, with Pacino ranting like a third-rate thug, we don't really care what his fate may be.

"Phil Spector" airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

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