Sydney Film Festival: The Agony and The Ecstasy

Docos on Phil Spector, Roman Polanski reveal troubled geniuses

by | June 8, 2009 | Comments

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Just weeks after his sentencing for the murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson, it was strange, sad and eerie to see Phil Spector’s flamboyant, bewigged and bizarrely charming figure up there on the big screen. And as its chief subject, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (screened without any hoo-ha, on Saturday June 6) provided a fascinating look at a troubled musical genius.

Acclaimed BBC filmmaker Vikram Jayanti got unprecedented access to the legendary producer/writer — for a total of six months, both during the first trial and prior to the second — and wisely opted to run one-on-one interview time, career retrospective and court proceedings simultaneously. While it proves a challenge to take in all three at once, the strategy works: you’re left with the image of a man whose talents also proved to be his demons, and who appears oblivious to the fate that lies ahead of him.

There are nagging omissions in the film: nothing about the time he stuck a gun to Leonard Cohen’s head in the studio, not a jot about holding John Lennon’s master tapes to ransom in 1973 (or nearly shooting him), nor a mention of the firearm threat allegedly directed at the Ramones, either. But, as the director is at pains to point out, the film doesn’t seek to pass judgement on the man, nor hypothesise on the precise events of that fateful night in 2003. Rather, the intention is to go inside the mind of a tortured soul.

“I’m fascinated with so-called troubled geniuses,” Jayanti told me after the screening. “What I didn’t expect was just how funny and charming he can be. You see it in the film. Do I feel for Phil? Absolutely. And I feel a hundred times more for Lana and her family. What happened is something straight out of Hollywood Babylon.”

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Dersired

Another not-too-dissimilar tale is the notorious 1977 statutory rape case against Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski. Having pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor, he fled to France before sentencing (imagine Phil Spector doing that today). The doco Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired not only shows another troubled genius with a tragic past, but uncovers forgotten facts about the case — facts that damn not Polanski, but the legal and media forces feeding off the trial.

Incarceration and popular culture are old bedfellows, of course, a case that this year’s festival inadvertently makes. Elsewhere, there’s been the excellent — and similarly engaging — drama Bronson, about the most violent man in Britain, Michael Peterson (who now goes by the name Charles Bronson, after his cinematic hero). Peterson went to jail for armed robbery for seven years — and has since spent a whopping 30 years in solitary confinement, in a bizarre attempt at celebrity. Think Chopper in England.

With such impressive nods to documentary filmmaking and dramatisation, I only wish the festival was highlighted out front, in bold type, at the George Street cinema complex (the secondary venue for the 2009 event). The ‘now showing’ marquee outside the cinema bears no mention of it whatsoever. And oddly, patrons who obediently arrive ‘at least 15 minutes prior to screening time’ (as ordered on the ticket) have to wait in line till kick-off time — rather like boarding a budget airline. Why not let punters take their seats as they arrive? That might put a smile on poor Mutley’s face.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired screens Sunday June 14 at 12pm at the State Theatre, Market Street.

For full program details, head over to the Sydney Film Festival’s website

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