15, Key Cities
Telstar is a biopic about the ‘ground breaking’ 1960s song writer and independent record producer Joe Meek, but unless you know a lot about Joe already — and, I confess, I didn’t — you’re never that clear about what ground he broke exactly. If you fancy seeing this film, I would even recommend you look up Mr Meek on Wikipedia before you go. Some people distrust the site but I don’t. As it is, it currently has me down as a journalist and a part-time lingerie model, and you know what? I am a part-time lingerie model. Generally, I don’t like to talk about it, as it always seems like boasting, but I do have a great figure.
Anyway, written and directed by Nick Moran with Con O’Neill reprising his role as Meek, the film opens rather as it means to go on: that is, chaotically. It’s 1961, when Joe is in his early thirties and is working and living in a makeshift recording studio above a leather-goods shop on the Holloway Road. There’s a question of tone from the off with Pam Ferris playing his blowsy landlady rather as if she might be out of a traditional TV sitcom, while Kevin Spacey…actually, I don’t know what Kevin Spacey is up to. He plays Meek’s financial backer, Major Banks, who, if this performance is anything to go by, wore a vivid ginger wig and only spoke toff, as in, ‘What, ho!’ It may, actually, be the most distractingly inappropriate cameo of all time. Honestly, I sometimes despair at today’s films, but no matter. If it all goes belly-up, at least I have my lingerie work to fall back on. (Bras, mainly; I don’t often say this but I do have amazing breasts.)
So, where were we? Oh, yes, that makeshift studio, which has a singer recording in the toilet, a trio of further singers doing their stuff in another room, and Meek’s band, The Tornadoes, in the living room, as Meek himself runs hither and thither, pacifying someone one minute, exploding with rage the next, and generally carrying on as if he is rather nuts, which he is, and yet we never get inside his head. We know he is gay at a time when it was illegal to be so. We know he believes in the occult. We know he imagines Buddy Holly communicates with him from beyond the grave. We know that as he doesn’t read music or play an instrument he struggles to communicate his ideas to his musicians. We know, too, that by the end he is wildly paranoid. But the pace of the film is so frantic and snappy it lacks layering or depth. We never get any sense of what it might feel like to be Joe Meek. Con O’Neill acts his goddam socks off, lord love him, and I was exhausted on his behalf, but Meek never adds up to a personality; is more just a collection of increasingly erratic behaviours. And, beyond one or two clumsily inserted, sentimental soliloquies, we are never offered any clues as to why he is like this.
And the music? OK, Meek composed ‘Telstar’ — the eerie, electronic, space age melody you may not know you know, but you do — which was released in 1962 and went on to sell 5 million copies worldwide, but beyond that I never saw him break ground. I know now that he did. I now know that he pioneered techniques like ‘multiple overdubbing’, ‘close miking’ and ‘reverb’, all of which later became standard in pop music. I know, too, that he was responsible for producing 600 tracks — wow! — but only because the end credits told me so. As far as the film goes, it only ever looked like he was twiddling knobs. The music never becomes a character in and of itself, as it did, say, in Walk The Line or La Vie En Rose. Still, unlike other biopics it doesn’t, at least, mark momentous events — ‘Telstar’ going to number one in America, for example — by showing you the story on the front of a newspaper. Only teasing! Of course, it does.
You know, this isn’t an unenjoyable movie and, if you are desperate to see a movie, it’ll do, but it’s never fully satisfying because it never fully decides what sort of film it wants to be. Meek’s life was a car-crash, pretty much, and, genius or not, he was one troubled guy, but this often traduces everything to slapstick. Anyway, I’m off now to shoot a catalogue for next spring. You always have to be a few seasons ahead in this game, I’m telling you. (Also, and I don’t often say this either, I do have terrific legs.)