4-part doc ‘Spector’ deepens our understanding of the killer — and his victim
While detailing the music producer’s history of studio success and bizarre behavior, the Showtime true-crime series also makes time to remember the slain Lana Clarkson as more than just a ‘B-movie actress.’
When the opening credits to Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” roll, we hear “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes on the soundtrack. When Henry Hill guides Karen through the Copacabana in the famous Steadicam shot in 1990’s “Goodfellas,” the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” accompanies them every step of the way. In the same film, Scorsese needle-drops George Harrison’s “What Is Life” into the frenetic sequence in which Henry is trying to keep one step ahead of the authorities. That same year, in the iconic pottery sequence in “Ghost,” Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore get lost in each other to the sounds of “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Bros.
These four songs have one thing in common: They were produced by Phil Spector, who was also the man behind the curtain — or should we say, the Wall of Sound — for “Chapel of Love,” “Imagine,” “Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “My Sweet Lord,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “River Deep — Mountain High,” et al. There’s no denying Spector’s place as a legendary producer — and his legacy as a manipulative, narcissistic, unpredictable, hot-tempered and deeply troubled figure whose decades-long pattern of unstable behavior reached a horrific and tragic nadir on Feb. 3, 2003, when Spector shot and killed actress Lana Clarkson in his mansion in Alhambra, California.
Not every true-crime documentary series requires a four-episode arc to tell the story, but in the case of Showtime’s exceedingly well-crafted, meticulously researched and consistently compelling “Spector,” the overall running time is justified. Directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce deliver a thorough non-fiction biopic of Spector’s life and times, while also devoting considerable time to Clarkson’s story, ensuring she’s not remembered in the dismissive shorthand as the B-movie actress who was killed in Phil Spector’s creepy castle of a house.
A four-part series showing at 8 p.m. Sundays on Showtime and available now in full on Showtime’s streaming and on-demand platforms.
“Spector” begins with the events of Feb. 3 and the 911 call placed by Spector’s Brazilian driver, Adriano De Souza, who tells the dispatcher, “I think my boss killed somebody. … [There’s] a lady on the floor and a gun in his hand.” Throughout the series, we return to the tragic night, and we’re reminded of the details: that Spector met Clarkson that night when she was working as a hostess at the Foundation Room in the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip and at closing time convinced her to accompany him home for a drink. About an hour later, De Souza (who was waiting outside) heard a gunshot and encountered Spector, who told him, “I think I just shot her.”
We then flash back to a chronicle of Spector’s childhood in the New York of the 1940s, which was seemingly uneventful until Spector was 9 and his father committed suicide. Spector was still a teenager when he wrote first No. 1 hit, the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” which was inspired by the words on his father’s tombstone: “To Know Him Was to Love Him.”
We follow Spector’s meteoric rise in the 1960s as one of the most influential and mercurial producers in the business, as he dresses like a dandy in heels and elaborate outfits; plays Svengali as he manipulates artists with Machiavellian-level cunning, and becomes increasingly unhinged and unpredictable.
We hear stories about Spector waving a gun around and making threats in recording sessions — and doing the same in his private life, according to a number of women who testified at his trial. (Not that the doc doesn’t give voice to Spector’s loyal supporters, his daughter Nicole chief among them.)
Through interviews with Lana Clarkson’s mother, Donna, and some of her closest friends, home movies and archival footage of Clarkson making her film debut in a memorable cameo as Mrs. Vargas in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” starring in five Roger Corman movies, guest-starring on TV shows such as “Knight Rider,” “Who’s the Boss?” and “Night Court” and trying her hand at a self-deprecating one-woman show, we get to know Lana as a smart, vivacious, kind, warm and beautiful woman who wasn’t any less of a person because she never became an A-lister. (We also see a montage of news reports after the murder, in which Clarkson is universally referred to as “a B-movie actress” or “B-list movie star,” with one voice-over reporter saying, quite idiotically, “She’d spent most of her life hoping that she’d be famous … and now, ironically, was.”) Says Richard Tomlin, former homicide detective with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept., “When people say [B-movie actress], what do you automatically think of: some low-budget, horrible actress in movies that you never heard of. To me, that was a form of degradation.”
Throughout the series, despite Spector’s wallowing, self-pitying claims that HE was the real victim, the filmmakers consistently remind us that the real tragedy was the brutal murder of a 40-year-old woman. After a widely publicized mistrial in 2007, Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson vowed to retry the case, and in 2009, a jury found Spector guilty of second-degree murder. Spector was still serving his sentence when he died in 2021 at the age of 81.
Says Jackson: “I’m often asked if justice was served with the verdict in the Spector case. He got his day in court, and he got his just desserts. But can justice ever quite be served when Lana is still dead?”