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  • Phillip V. Caruso / HBO

    Al Pacino gives his Spector, here with Helen Mirren's Linda Kenney Baden, plenty of nuance.

  • Phil V. Caruso / HBO

    Al Pacino is the title character and Helen Mirren is attorney Linda Kenney Baden in a scene from HBO's "Phil Spector." The film takes many liberties including casting the loquacious Pacino as the reticent Spector.

HBO's 'Phil Spector' stars a believable Pacino

Published: Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8AANDE
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013 - 8:10 am

The most revelatory moment in the HBO film "Phil Spector," premiering at 9 tonight, occurs after Spector (Al Pacino) takes the stand in a mock trial meant to prepare him for his actual murder trial.

While he's answering questions on the stand, one of his lawyers asks him to please speak up.

That's right. He asks Al Pacino – an actor who can't help but project from the diaphragm – to speak up.

This moment clearly establishes that "Spector," written and directed by David Mamet, isn't kidding when billing itself as truly a "work of fiction." (Speak up? Pacino couldn't whisper if he tried.)

Though facts are sprinkled throughout, this film, centered on the legendary "Wall of Sound" record producer convicted of the 2003 killing of actress Lana Clarkson, always plays as more of an interpretation than a docudrama.

The movie broadens from Spector's legal case into larger explorations of prejudices people can harbor about celebrities and eccentrics. The result is a thoughtful, sometimes fascinating, purposefully inconclusive character study.

Pacino, like Spector, is in his 70s and was raised in New York City. His Spector sounds just like regular old Pacino when he first emerges from the shadows of the mansion he calls his "castle" to meet his new attorney, Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren).

While he never quite nails the voice, Pacino adds nuances to his performance as he goes. He tempers his signature speaking style with the slumped bearing and weary eyes of a genius long since removed from the top of his physical or mental games.

As the case against Spector looks bleaker, Pacino's expressions grow more fearful. His demeanor alternates between comfortable and even expansive when in his mansion, and visibly uneasy out of it.

Pacino's mannerisms fit images of the real Spector, who comes across as loquacious in sit-down interviews available on YouTube, but always looked awkward and frail entering and exiting courtrooms.

When Mirren's Kenney Baden first arrives at the mansion, the scene plays as grandiose, its mood overdubbed with shadows and the mansion's garish décor. Among Spector's treasures are a suit of armor, a bust of Abraham Lincoln and enough guns to fill a room.

Clad in smoking jacket and pajamas, Spector enters the scene already suffering from a severe case of self- involvement. He complains that despite his accomplishments, he always will be known for Clarkson's death: "A girl shoots herself in my house and that is the legacy," he says. People want to take him down, he argues, because they envy his celebrity.

This sequence, though clearly fictionalized, probably is not too great an exaggeration (the real Kenney Baden was a consultant on the film). Spector's attorneys argued that Clarkson, an actress and restaurant hostess who traveled with Spector to his mansion in Spector's car, put a gun barrel in her mouth and shot herself.

And it's not hard to believe Spector was really this removed from reality. An obsessive at his healthiest, he would spend hours in the studio crafting a single note on 1960s records such as the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and the Righteous Brothers' "You Lost That Lovin' Feeling."

And that was before he began his period of holing up at home and, according to Ronettes singer and ex-wife Ronnie Spector, holding her a virtual hostage.

But the Spector in "Phil Spector" also is highly intelligent and articulate, with a flair for lending his own travails historical context. Kenney Baden, who comes to the case skeptical, eventually trusts him enough to stay involved with his case longer than she had intended.

Mirren's role exists mostly as a narrative bridge. But she's the right person to perform it, because she's inherently trustworthy on screen. When blood evidence and Spector's recollections prompt the attorney to entertain the idea Clarkson shot herself, the audience entertains it as well, if only for a minute. More enlightening are the legal team's private beliefs that Spector's oddball appearance and reputation, on top of his celebrity, will doom him with jurors regardless.

Mamet hits on a valid point here. Schadenfreude fuels endless coverage of Lindsay Lohan's every legal kerfuffle, and she does not even wear fright wigs. It's hard to say how much Spector's image contributed to his conviction (Kenney Baden defended Spector in a 2007 hung-jury trial; a 2009 jury decided against him), but it likely did not help.

Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

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