Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Telstar (The Joe Meek Story) DVD review

Joe Meek is not a figure many Americans have ever heard of (me included), but sit down for a viewing of Telstar, a rock and roll biopic which details the highs and lows (mostly the latter) of his life, and you’ll likely never forget him. Few such biopics have a happy story to tell, and Meek’s is as bleak as any I’ve seen, and yet it may be worth a gander, if for no other reason than the riveting performance of Con O’Neill, who portrays its central figure.

The history of art is riddled with one hit wonders, and while Meek, a producer, seems to have been quite the innovator in his time, from today’s vantage point, he’s largely known for one thing, and that’s the 1962 instrumental tune “Telstar,” which he wrote and recorded with his studio band The Tornados. The song was a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic, reaching #1 in both the U.S. (a first for a British band) and the U.K. Unfortunately for Meek, a French film composer sued him for plagiarism over the song, and the millions of dollars in royalties he would have received from “Telstar” were held up in court for years, forcing Meek to struggle with his art and money over the following years. On February 3rd, 1967 – the eight year anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, a figure with whom Meek was borderline obsessed – Meek pulled a shotgun on his landlady, Violet Shenton (Pam Ferris), and killed her. Then he killed himself. Three weeks later the French courts ruled in favor of Meek. The movie Telstar aims to show how it all went so wrong for Joe Meek.

Pam Ferris as Violet Shenton and Con O'Neill as Joe Meek
Telstar has its roots in the theatre, as it was first a 2005 stage play, written by Nick Moran and James Hicks, with O’Neill playing Meek. Moran helms the film version, and though he seems eager for the material to shed its staged roots, much of the movie is still set in Meek’s flat, which doubled as his recording studio (no doubt this was the primary set used in the play). It first premiered at the London Film Festival in 2008, so Telstar is also several years old, and now, nearly three years after its U.K. release, it quietly makes its debut on DVD here in the States. While this might normally indicate an inferior film, I think what’s really going on here is that Telstar was found to be a nearly impossible film to market to American audiences. Kevin Spacey is part of the cast (as Major Banks, Meek’s financial backer), yes, but a small part, and not one the movie could be sold on. The rest of the players are nearly as foreign to U.S. audiences as the story being told here. (Fine, fine, fine...yes, James Corden does indeed have a fairly important part as drummer Clem Cattini.) 

O'Neill and JJ Feild as Heinz
The movie offers up numerous reasons for Meek’s downfall, with his money problems being only one of them. His interest in the occult plays a part. He held séances on a regular basis, and thought that Buddy Holly was speaking to him from the grave. He was addicted to pills; a steady regimen of uppers and downers. He was tone deaf, which, as you might surmise, wasn’t a good thing for a music producer. He seemingly had the inability to recognize mega talent when it was presented to him. The movie highlights his dismissing of The Beatles when Brian Epstein sends him a demo reel (while his Wikipedia page also mentions David Bowie and Rod Stewart as artists he could’ve worked with, but chose not to). Meek was also a homosexual at a time when it was illegal to be a homosexual in England, and in one scene he’s arrested for cruising public bathrooms. However, what Telstar really seems to indicate was the cause of his demise, was his blind faith in Heinz Burt (JJ Feild), his lover and musical protégée. Here, Meek seems to believe that Heinz will rule the pop music world, never seeming to notice that audiences can’t stand the guy, and view him as a joke.   

Kevin Spacey as Major Banks
Clearly O’Neill had several years to hone his performance before going before the cameras, and it shows. He attacks the role of Meek with fearless gusto, and in doing so creates a character who’s almost impossible to like, yet enormously easy to sympathize with. The movie itself is a rambling affair, with what feels like at least a couple dozen characters, veering in and out of Meek’s life. Many of them are present for only a scene, and it feels as if they’re going to be important to the proceedings, but then they quickly disappear (much like in life, I suppose – though it doesn’t necessarily make for easy to follow filmmaking). I honestly couldn’t tell what the filmmakers thought of Joe Meek, as they didn’t go out of their way to showcase him in much of a positive light, and the entire film builds and builds toward the murder suicide. Yet they’ve shepherded this material a long way, and O'Neill's dedicated a large chunk of his career to the role. (A commentary track would've been a welcome inclusion on this disc.)

Telstar has a great central performance from Con O’Neill, but a flawed execution of the film itself. It’s nearly impossible to recommend this to anyone except those who’ve an interest in pop music history, however they may very well love it, especially as the movie is jam-packed from beginning to end with all sorts of oddball British music from the era it chronicles. The DVD has no extras outside of a theatrical trailer.