Last night I attended a special LACMA screening of David Mamet‘s Phil Spector (HBO, 3.24). It’s far from a typical big-murder-trial, guilty-or-innocent movie. It’s very tight and taut in the classic Mamet style, and it contains a pair of compelling, at times amusing, charismatic performances from Al Pacino as Spector-the-nutbag (brilliant, flamboyant, fickle, rambling of speech, bewigged, gnome-like) and Helen Mirren as his flinty defense attorney, Linda Kenney Baden.

Obviously Pacino and Mirren are destined for Emmy award nominations. Ditto Mamet for direction and screenplay.

Phil Spector runs a mere 91 minutes. That obviously indicates considerable discipline given the reams of material on Spector and his first Lana Clarkson murder trial, which resulted in a hung jury in September 2007. (The state re-tried Spector and got a conviction in May 2009 for second-degree murder. He’ll be eligible for parole when he’s 88 years old.) Mamet could have made an epic-sized thing, or at least one lasting two or three hours.

And yet it’s not so much about story-telling as the wielding of a blade that cuts in and around like a sushi chef. Great skill and flair and theatrical pizazz have been brought to bear.

The script may remind you in certain ways of Mamet’s script for The Verdict (’82) in that it’s much more about psychology than courtroom strategy, and also because it offers an ethically precise point of view. As The Verdict was about redemption, Phil Spector is about damnation.

It’s all “factual” in a sense, but it’s also a fantasia of sorts. It’s a visit to Mamet-world. His strategy is to focus on the relationship between Spector and Baden, but in so doing explore all the key arguments that suggested Spector was guilty of deliberately shooting Clarkson in the mouth and also that he may not be. The idea is that in a certain foolish or theatrical way Clarkson may have been holding the gun and that it may have gone off accidentally. It does seem likely that what happened was accidental. It does seem likely that there would have been more blood found on Spector’s white jacket if he had been holding the gun. The evidence is the evidence.

Mamet has said over and over that Phil Spector is about the “mythological possibilities” in Spector’s life and personality and in the murder trial itself. In line with this he tries a little mumbo-jumbo tap-dancing right out of the gate. “This is a work of fiction,” a statement reads before the film begins. “It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor comment upon the trial or its outcome.” I don’t know what the hell that really means.

And yet Mamet’s film states quite clearly that (a) the facts indicate that Spector didn’t deliberately kill Clarkson, and (b) she may well have been holding the gun when it went off.

I think that’s pretty close to taking a side, don’t you? Mamet looks at the facts of the case and conveys a conclusion. I was persuaded by his presentation.

Mamet’s bottom-line view is that Spector basically screwed himself by being himself. He was convicted of “we don’t like you.” He was convicted for not opening himself up to People magazine and admitting he’d been a snarly, selfish fuck and asking for forgiveness. He was convicted for having owned several guns and having threatened other women with them. He was convicted for having acquired a reputation of being a reclusive shit. He was convicted for wearing a series of appalling wigs.

Pacino has a lot of fun with Spector. It’s a beautiful virtuoso performance. He rolls around like a pig in shit. But honestly? Pacino makes Spector seem a little bit goofier and wiggier than he seems in Vikram Jayanti‘s The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector. Here’s an excerpt from my 6.26.10 piece about the doc, which I first saw three or four years ago:

“[Spector is] a fascinating man — there’s no getting around that. A brilliant, oddball X-factor ‘character’ of the first order. I’ve known a few guys like Spector. They’re egotists and half-crazy and it’s always about them, but they’re a trip to talk to and share stories with. If you love show business, you can’t help but love how these guys are always sharp as a tack and don’t miss a trick and are always blah-blahing about their genius and their importance.

“Except Spector’s blah is backed up by truth. He’s a serious maestro who really did shape and inspire rock ‘n’ roll in its infancy, and who touched heaven a few times in the process.

“Okay, so he probably shot Lana Clarkson, a 40 year-old, financially struggling actress, on 2.3.03 when she was visiting his home. Or maybe he threatened to shoot her and the gun accidentally went off. Or whatever. And maybe Spector telling a Daily Telegraph reporter two months before the shooting that ‘he had bipolar disorder and that he considered himself relatively insane’ was a factor. And maybe he deserves to be in jail for 19 years. The guy is obviously immodest and intemperate with demons galore.

“But you can tell from listening to Spector that he’s some kind of bent genius — that he’s brilliant, exceptional, perceptive — and that it’s a monumental tragedy that these qualities co-exist alongside so much weirdness inside the man — all kinds of strutting-egoist behavior and his having threatened women with guns and all of that ‘leave me alone because I’m very special’ hiding-behind-bodyguards crap. Because life is short and the kind of vision and talent that Spector has (or at least had) is incredibly rare and world-class.

“That’s why Jayanti’s film is so absorbing, and why the title is exactly right. Why do so many gifted people always seem to be susceptible to baser impulses? Why do they allow bizarre psychological currents to influence their lives? What kind of a malignant asshole waves guns around in the first place? I’ll tell you what kind of guy does that. A guy who never got over hurtful traumatic stuff that happened in his childhood (like his father committing suicide), and who decided early on that he wouldn’t deal with it.”

Thanks to LACMA’s Elvis Mitchell for being a nice guy.