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Mirren/Pacino pairing keeps HBO's Phil Spector in tune


Stand by your man: Mirren defends Pacino in Phil Spector. HBO photo

Al Pacino doesn’t do subdued anymore, but Helen Mirren does.

And she’s brilliant while he has his wild-eyed moments in the HBO film Phil Spector, premiering Sunday, March 24th at 8 p.m. central.

Written and directed by the esteemed David Mamet (Glengarry Glenn Ross, Wag the Dog,) this 90-minute depiction of Spector’s first trial for murder carries an opening disclaimer that’s almost as odd as the accused’s assortment of wigs.

“This is a work of fiction,” viewers are informed. “It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.” Or to borrow from a have-it-both-ways, late 1960s ad campaign, “Certs is two, two, two mints in one.”

Phil Spector in fact does connect the dots of its namesake’s eyewitness view to the death of Lana Clarkson, a struggling actress with numerous bit parts on her resume. They included a role as “Woman at Babylon Club” in Pacino’s 1983 Scarface.

Clarkson (very briefly played by Meghan Marx in the film) died in 2003 of a gunshot wound at Spector’s weapons-infested, Alhambra, CA manor. He claimed she put a pistol in her mouth and killed herself. But prosecutors fingered Spector, and he first went on trial in 2007.

Pacino’s Spector doesn’t have his first scene until the 17-and-a-half-minute mark. But Mirren is immediately on camera as attorney Linda Kenney Baden, who has both the flu and an initial gut feeling that Spector in fact pulled the trigger.

“They let O.J. go. They let Michael Jackson go. They are not gonna let him go,” she gruffly tells lead attorney Bruce Cutler (solid work by the redoubtable Jeffrey Tambor).

Mirren’s early examination of the evidence -- and a possible way out for “Philip” -- might well remind some of her best-known character, detective Jane Tennison, from the Prime Suspect series. But that goes away when Kenney Baden first meets her man after prowling around his aggressively decorated pad.

Pacino’s Spector immediately launches into full ramble, touching at length on the Kennedys (he had no use for Teddy) before proclaiming, “I invented the music business. I put black America in the white home.”

As a producer/songwriter, Spector’s famed “wall of sound” technique yielded the likes of “Unchained Melody; You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling; Be My Baby” and “He’s a Rebel,” all of which are heard to very good effect in the film. It’s enough, all in all -- listening to those tunes and watching two pros emote while the case at hand heats up.

“He’s a freak. They’re gonna convict him on ‘I just don’t like you.’ “ an associate of Baden is convinced.

“The facts do not support a conviction,” Kenney Baden comes to believe.

Spector (“I’m not standoffish! I’m inaccessible”) figures he’s a goner as far as justice being served. “What do they hate about me?” he asks. “I’m alive,” he answers.

Down the homestretch, Spector pays Kenney Baden his ultimate compliment in an up-close scene that both stars play to perfection. “I’ve met a lot of crazy people in my life,” he tells her. “I’ve met very few sane ones that I could talk to.”

The movie already has been criticized as slanted -- by allies of both Spector and the dead Clarkson. But open-minded viewers aren’t likely to see it that way. This is mostly an imagined behind-the-scenes look at a circus trial, but with very little time spent in the courtroom. Instead, a mock cross-examination of Spector in preparation for his possible testimony gives Pacino a chance to blow sky-high while Mirren strives to calm him.

Spector’s eventual fate is fairly well-known, but there’s no need to specify here. In the end, Phil Spector succeeds on the strength of its two marquee thespians. Mirren is wonderful throughout, Pacino scores in double figures and they have enough scenes together to make it all well worth your while.

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