Thursday 7 June 2012

From the archive: "Telstar: The Joe Meek Story"

The essential matter of Telstar is noise. Within its opening ten minutes, our eardrums are subjected to, in no particular order, traffic and torrential rain on the Holloway Road, Pam Ferris raising a fuss as the proprietress of a leather goods shop, Kevin Spacey testing out his English gentleman's accent, a backing singer wailing in a bathroom, a makeshift orchestra playing in an airing cupboard, a tramp banging a dustbin lid, Con O'Neill's rasping Cornish brogue as doomed pop genius Joe Meek, an early Lonnie Donegan recording, and - by way of comic relief - Ralf Little farting. Nick Moran's biopic, adapted from the acclaimed West End play by James Hicks, dramatises how, out of this aural chaos, Meek came to manufacture some of the finest, strangest British singles of the 1960s - including the title track, the 2001 of pop recordings - before ending it all with a big bang of his own.

Meek offers a polyphonic role for O'Neill, simultaneously showy and emotionally muted as a preening control freak, hopped up on diet pills, prone to throwing session musicians down the stairs one moment, and flouncing around his latest discovery the next. This Meek is supremely open (read: vulnerable) to extraterrestrial impulses and misplaced desires: he stomps all over the genuine affections of songwriter Geoff Goddard (Tom Burke) to pander to the whims of peroxide-blonde pretty boy Heinz (JJ Feild) - the Bosie to Meek's Wilde - a singer so universally reviled that his own backing band came to take the side of those audience members who lined up to throw cans of beans at him. The thesis is that, while these influences and weaknesses made Meek's music more interesting than most, it was his lack of worldliness that finally brought him down. An arrest for importuning sent Meek spiralling off into paranoia, but he'd already displayed questionable business instincts, and no real sense of how fleeting and evanescent pop's golddust can be: we have only to hear the opening riffs of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" here to know the producer's number was up.

Telstar betrays its theatrical origins in places: there are some rather clumsy timeshifts, back to an inciting incident involving toxic waste in Meek's childhood, and forwards to his final days in the studio, when we find him clad in black and taking a match to his vinyl. The route between these poles is smoothed by Moran's obvious affection for, and fascination with, this particular cultural moment. A script full of enjoyable 60s jokes, about Adam Faith's boat and a certain Merseybeat combo Brian Epstein was touting ("Yeah yeah yeah... they're rubbish," Meek sneers) is given further oomph by wryly knowing 21st century casting: Justin Hawkins from The Darkness as Screaming Lord Sutch (his publicity stunts dismissed in the spinning headline "IDIOT ANNOYS LOCALS"), Libertine Carl Barat as Gene Vincent, former S Club popstrel Jon Lee as Billy Fury. Ex-EastEnder Nigel Harman plays Jess Conrad as a chest-puffing bovver boy; and Conrad himself turns up as Larry Parnes.

The funniest irony is that a film funded by multi-millionaire Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan should centre so wholly on the mundane squalor of Meek's flat, with its cups of tea perched on recording decks, its ambience partway between a NASA lab and a serial killer's digs. The film is at its strongest evoking the extreme interiority of an individual who functioned (and only functioned) within a self-created universe, hiding himself away behind headphones, sunglasses, a wall of sound; it's telling that a partition literally prevents producer and musicians from seeing eye-to-eye during the recording process, and rarely outside a vampire movie can so much have been made of the prying open of a window, the letting-in of the light on a kind of magic. Telstar revives and reminds us of some great music, but it's alert to an even greater tragedy: that of a man whose sounds travelled across the universe, abandoning him to the discord in his own head.

(June 2009)

Telstar: The Joe Meek Story screens on BBC2 this Saturday at 11.15pm. (For the next seven days, it's available on the iPlayer here.)

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