Considering the legacy of Spector’s Wall of Sound recording technique there have been remarkably few attempts at dissecting his sound and widespread influence on screen. Sure, due to the tragic events of the Lana Clarkson case, a large number of Court TV-like screen portrayals of Spector have come and gone, mainly using his musical legacy as a mere backdrop to his portrayal in light of the Clarkson case.
There was also the 2013 David Mamet-instructed Phil Spector TV movie that had Al Pacino don several wigs and proudly display ‘Back to Mono’ buttons in order to breathe life into a character that today sadly seems more widely known for his inner, sinister demons and love of guns than his past musical achievements. Personally, I was very disappointed by the Mamet TV movie which I had pretty high hopes for as something that would focus not only on the case itself, but also dwell on Spector’s past and the music we all love. The little attention that part of his story got in the movie was indeed disappointing. It was basically a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it type of moment.
In my book, Spector’s output with his Philles roster is every bit as groundbreaking as the iconic releases by, say, the Beatles, the Beach Boys or Elvis – musical giants whose fans have had a multitude of music documentaries and TV or theater movies to look into through the years. Not so for Spector fans – which is hardly surprising since the former Tycoon of Teen is known to be notoriously difficult to work with. Anyone wanting to do some sort of documentary or movie about him and his music should be determined to go through a lot of trouble and dead ends.
Which makes the 1983 Spector documentary ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ all the more remarkable. You may have seen it? If not, it was finally released officially on DVD in 2009, long after it’s 1983 screenings on British TV and an obscure afterlife as a grey-area bootleg among collectors. Here’s a link for the current version out there:
I have always wanted to know more about this interesting, but puzzling documentary which is about Spector, his music and influence but without his direct participation. Instead, the viewer is treated to short anecdotes and voiced opinions about Spector by a wide range of former collaborators, contemporary producers or artists he has worked with.
In all honesty, even though I’ve enjoyed watching and re-visiting this documentary through the years, I find the flow and choice of scenes at times both puzzling and fragmented. It also seems more aimed at the average viewer instead of a hardcore Spector geek which of course means that any Cue Castanets reader probably won’t learn anything new seeing it.
Then again, put on your ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ DVD reissue and you’ll see Leiber & Stoller, Stan Ross and Larry Levine as well as other important people within the Spector legacy share their thoughts and views on him, however brief. This alone makes the documentary interesting. And then just try to imagine how difficult it must have be to even undertake such a project, especially one about as notoriously reclusive and troubled an individual as Spector! It gives me a headache just to think about it.
Prior to the airing of ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ there was a bit of hype around the documentary in the old Philately fanzines, only to be replaced by a sense of disappointment after it’s run. I guess the hardcore Spector fanbase had hoped for more new info and perhaps even Spector’s direct participation after many years of silence. Alas, it was not to be – but it wasn’t for a lack of effort by the people behind the documentary. You will learn this by reading the following interview which I’m very pleased to publish here on Cue Castanets. I’ve managed to contact the director of the documentary, Binia Tymieniecka, in order to hear more about this obscure project. Luckily, Binia was all up for sharing her recollections about ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and gladly answered my questions.
Enjoy – and don’t forget to search out the DVD reissue if you haven’t seen Binia’s documentary before.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Binia, going back to the time before you undertook the task of making a Spector documentary, could you describe what your background in film was?
My adventures in film are quite unusual. After graduating at the Royal College of Art (where I studied sculpture), a close friend encouraged me to apply for the position of head lecturer in film studies at Portsmouth Polytechnic. Although lacking any formal training or experience in filmmaking, my interest in cinema, my background in Fine Art and a fair amount of blagging were enough to secure the post.
Weekends, evenings and any other spare time were spent in learning fundamental filmmaking techniques, studying film theory and improving my knowledge of the history of world cinema. As a result, not only was I able to stay one step ahead of my students, I also fell in love with the film medium and after three years I decided that my ambition lay in making my own films rather than teaching others how to make theirs.
Tell us a bit about how the whole Spector documentary came about? Whose idea was it, – who commissioned it? And how did you become involved?
My first success as a director was in persuading LWT (London Weekend Television) to finance a 60 minute documentary film ‘Soviet Art’ for their weekly flagship programme ‘Southbank Show’ headed by Melvyn Bragg. As an unknown director the film was given a shoestring budget and I acted as producer, researcher, writer and interviewer as well as being the director.
Nearing completion of the film, Tony Cash, my executive producer at LWT asked what my next project would be – without hesitation I replied that I wanted to make a film about Phil Spector. Tony was less than enthusiastic and said ‘no one is interested in that has-been’. Unknown to him, his throwaway comment gave me the determination to turn this idea into reality. I cheekily replied – ‘It will be called Da Doo Ron Ron – so watch out for it’
On transmission, ‘Soviet Art’ was well received by the critics and established my credentials as an independent director. As a subject for a film, Phil Spector was about as far away from ‘Soviet Art’ as is possible to imagine, but I was only really interested in making films about subjects that I was passionate about.
From my teenage years onwards I had loved Phil Spector’s music (and still do) and became intrigued by his reputation for being a recluse, an eccentric, litigious and shy of media attention. Possibly, it was the obstacles that faced the project combined with my love of the music that made ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ an obvious choice for my next film – and certainly no one else had tried and succeeded before. So what could possibly go wrong?
How did you establish contact with Spector? Did you meet him directly or did you only have contact through his secretary? Do you know how he felt about the project and the final results?
Quite predictably, making contact with Spector was a torturous and time consuming exercise. Months of requests and attempted negotiations with his aides and secretaries failed to make any progress and it was only after a meeting in London with Marty Machat, (his lawyer and close confidante) that Spector agreed to see me to discuss the proposed film.
That meeting is a whole other story but his response to seeing the completed film was to issue legal writs against myself, Rodney and several of the interviewees. Spector’s capacity for litigation had already become part of music industry folklore and I would have been disappointed if he had reacted in any other way.
Even though he doesn’t feature in the documentary, upon seeing it the first time I gathered it must have somewhat met with his approval since you were able to use full-length versions of some of his iconic hits.
He’s been notorious for turning down usage of his music on screen and in cinema so that was some feat. Could you tell a bit more about the music licensing involved?
Marty Machat had homes in both LA and London and split his time between the two. This allowed a good working relationship to develop between us and resulted in favourable licencing terms for the use of music.
In spite of his apparent hostility to the project, I think that Spector realised that the film might generate additional record sales and more income for himself. Almost certainly, Marty would have obtained Spector’s approval of the proposed licencing terms before granting them to me.
That said, although the financial terms were favourable, other conditions restricted use of the music (and therefore the film as well) to one broadcast and one repeat broadcast only. The survival of the film beyond those broadcasts is largely thanks to the unauthorised copies made by bootleggers and die hard Spector fans alike.
Did you in any way have access to the Spector tape archive or had the chance to listen to unreleased recordings? For decades Spector fans have obsessed about what may – or may not – be still lurking in the Spector tape vault.
No. And I doubt that Spector would have kept recordings of sessions that he didn’t consider worthy of commercial release.
I may be wrong but I think his extraordinary obsession with perfection would lead him to erase or destroy everything except for the final master tapes. Possibly some tapes of unreleased recordings remain in the hands of studio engineers, session musicians and the like but I think that the notion of a central tape vault of unreleased recordings is a rather fanciful idea.
Aside from these thoughts, it should be remembered that in those days professional quality magnetic tape was not cheap and in many studios it was common practise to erase and reuse anything that was’nt considered worth keeping.
Having legendary LA scenester and KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer do the running commentary about Spector and the people interviewed was a great touch. How did Rodney get involved? Was he also helping your team establish contact to your interview subjects?
I first met Rodney after filming had already started, – I seem to remember that it was Nino Tempo who suggested I contact him.
Rodney lived, breathed and slept music and we struck up an immediate friendship and rapport. His reputation as a DJ was already legendary and because his love of music was so genuine he was respected and well liked by many of the big shots in the music industry.
Without doubt, Rodney’s endorsement of my project helped to open many doors. Right from the outset I wanted to avoid the usual scripted commentary style of documentary but as filming progressed it became obvious that the various different interviews and elements needed a narrative to create a cohesive whole.
The idea of using Rodneys voice and DJ persona as a device to link everything together was one of those flashes of imagination type of moment. He quickly agreed and towards the end of the filming schedule we spent several hours together recording the clips of voice over that are used in the film.
Do you remember if there were anyone you unsuccessfully tried to interview for the documentary? As is, the list of people involved is rather impressive! How much time did you actually spend in the US filming?
Right up until the last day of filming I never gave up hope that Spector might agree to be interviewed. But apart from him, most of the interviewees on my ‘must have’ list were happy to participate – some with great enthusiasm.
Tina Turner agreed to be interviewed but did not appear simply because she was ‘out of town’ at the time. Tom Wolfe and Andrew Loog Oldham were also on my list but were not available during the three week filming schedule.
I was very keen to interview Jack Nitzsche and he agreed, but only on the basis that Spector himself had to be present at the interview. The reason for this condition was never explained but I doubt that he feared Spector and more likely he wanted to use the interview as a means to settle a few old scores – but only if he could do so on a ‘face to face’ basis. Needless to say, Spector declined the invitation and the interview never happened.
Aside from the above, I think I fulfilled my original wish list of interviewees and added a few more in the process.
In the documentary there’s a short clip of 60s Spector rehearsing a song along with the Darlene Love-led Blossoms, ‘Every Evening when the Sun Goes Down.’
According to the ‘Philately’ fanzine at the time, the song was supposedly made up for the occasion and the clip from a mid-60s Spector documentary. Do you remember this clip and where you got it from? I’ve seen it used several times various places after its use in your documentary but I suspect those usages stem from yours?
I’m reluctant to explain the source of the clip you mention but you are right to say that it has been reused (without permission) by other documentary makers. The same applies to at least two other clips of B&W footage included in the film.
I have to say, that scene with the Ramones is priceless! I find Dee Dee’s description of how Spector would only let him play his pinball machine for a few minutes hilarious! Now, that’s rock’n’roll excess! Looking back, is there a particular part of the film you’re especially pleased with?
The Ramones interview is my favourite part of the film too!
It was also pivotal to the project – Unable to provide any firm guarantee that Spector would participate in the film, raising finance was always going to be difficult. Channel Four TV were enthusiastic but they too wanted to see Spector’s signature on a contract or agreement.
I heard that the Ramones were planning a UK tour and by pulling a few strings and calling in favours I managed to arrange crew, equipment and film stock to interview the band before their London gig in Hammersmith.
I showed the unedited footage to my contacts at Channel Four TV and on seeing it they agreed to finance the project – with or without any guarantee of Spector’s participation. As to the interview itself, well, it was agreed that the band would give me 30 minutes of their time before they started the sound check.
Late afternoon and as promised, they shuffled into the venue, bleary eyed, half asleep and looking for coffee or maybe something stronger. Being aware of the minutes ticking by, I said ‘Okay boys, stand up straight, hands by your sides and look at me’ and I went straight into the first question. Needless to say, they were great.
Other parts that I am fond of (for differing reasons), are Darlene Love singing on the beach, interviews with Albert Goldman and also Leiber & Stoller. The biplane aerobatics sequence set to music is also something that I think worked out well.
I’ve read in the old ‘Philately’ Spector fanzines from 1983 that you edited the film down from 17 hours worth of footage to the 90 minute version that was aired. Do you remember what kind of footage was left out? Did you for instance interview people whose perspectives didn’t make it to the final version?
The film was made on a shooting ratio of 10:1 – i.e. We shot 900 minutes of film and edited it down to 90 minutes – or thereabouts. I’m fairly sure that the film included a part of each and every interview we filmed.
Maybe I should check my own archives but I don’t think there were any true gems of footage that I left out from the final cut.
… and judging from the inside information in ‘Philately’, it would seem that you and the producer Patrick Lacy had your hands full dealing with Spector and his eccentricities. Care to share any anecdotes?
Yes, it’s true that Spector gave us the ‘run around’ for many months. Meetings would be set up – and then cancelled at the last moment, and this continued until Marty Machat got involved.
Patrick Lacy (producer) received news that Spector had agreed to see us so we immediately flew to LA before he changed his mind. On arriving at Spector’s mansion, the door was opened by George – his butler come bodyguard, a slab like faced man rather like a character from ‘The Munsters’.
In the hallway stood a rather tatty looking Christmas tree (this was July), and the whole place was dark. We were shown into a drawing room and told to wait. On one of two long tables, an assortment of children’s toys had been arranged in several neat rows complete with a sign, ‘Do Not Touch’. On the second table stood a large fish tank – the water too murky to see through but enough movement to suggest that something was lurking inside. Neither of us were too keen to find out what type of creature it might be.
We waited… and waited… then George reappeared to tell us that ‘Mister Spector will see you now’. We stood up and in walked a small figure of a man. He wore a black ‘Beatle cut’ style wig that somehow didn’t seem to move with the rest of his head – It was a comic sight and I had difficulty in keeping a straight face.
The game was up when he asked us which BBC programme we worked for. We explained that the film would be financed by Channel Four TV – a new British TV company… Spector lost it, and said he had been duped and started shouting at us to get out.
Having travelled from London for this meeting I wasn’t about to leave easily, I asked him what difference it made whether the film was financed by BBC or Channel Four but he wasn’t willing to explain – instead he told us that unless we left immediately he would ask George to bring a gun and ‘I will have you both for trespassing’. At that point, George politely suggested that he would show us ‘off the premises’. And that was the end of my first and only meeting with the legendary Phil Spector.
Finally, something I always ask for in any interview. Could you list your personal top 5 Spector productions?
My Top Five Spector productions – difficult to answer because I love so many but…
The Ronettes – ‘Do I love you’
The Ronettes – ‘When I saw you’
Darlene Love – ‘White Christmas’
John Lennon – ‘Be my Baby’
The Ramones – ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’
But ask me the same question next week and I will probably give you a totally different answer!
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions, Binia.