Home Video Hovel- Telstar
Rock ‘n roll has come a long way since white people invented it in the ‘50s. Popular taste shifts, styles come and go. There’s been skiffle, ska, surf, psychedelic, prog, funk, punk, goth, grunge, and garage. Also: nü-metal. And while it’s no longer the dominant art form of youth culture (thanks, Skrillex), rock has remained a surprisingly durable mode of self-expression. During rock’s primordial phase, no one had a better intuitive understanding of the genre’s possibilities than Joe Meek, subject of the workmanlike new rock biopic Telstar, named after the English record producer’s biggest hit and crowning artistic achievement. For a brief time, Meek’s brand of upbeat guitar pop dominated pre-Beatles London. It was an era when a simple instrumental song inspired by a telecommunications satellite could change lives—most notably and tragically for the man who wrote it.
The film wisely jettisons our hero’s formative years and picks up with the blustery Meek (an excellent Con O’Neill) already an established force in the world of British pop music, as the head of the label RGM Sound. Having converted the rented three-floor flat above a luggage shop into a ramshackle recording studio, Meek churns out a steady stream of low-level hits from artists including John Leyton (Callum Dixon), Heinz Burt (J.J. Field), and Screamin’ Lord Sutch (The Darkness’ Justin Hawkins.) But his biggest hit comes with the 1962 smash “Telstar”, recorded by Meek’s studio proxies The Tornados. A dreamlike swirl of cosmic surf guitar and otherworldly keyboards, “Telstar” is one of the greatest three-and-a-half minutes of music ever assembled (as a huge surf music nerd, I might be a little biased.)
Lacking any formal musical training, Meek allowed his ears to guide him, depending on RGM’s classically schooled in-house songwriter Geoff Goddard (Tom Burke) to reinterpret his improvised caterwauling as readable tablature. Meeks’ other key professional relationship was with his business partner Major Banks (Kevin Spacey, in a supporting turn), who tight reign on RGM’s purse strings kept (for a while, at least) Meek’s often-irrational flights of fancy in check.
Directed by English actor Nick Moran (Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Harry Potter) and adapted from James Hick’s stage production, Telstar doesn’t exactly reinvent the rock biopic genre, but it gets the job done. It’s strange how such different milieus seem, time and time again, to produce such similar lives. As filtered by cinema, at least. The beats here are pretty familiar: success, fame, substance abuse, sexual indiscretion, and professional atrophy. Sometimes these stories end tragically; sometimes they don’t. I won’t say which direction Telstar takes, but I did spoil the end of the film for myself by looking up Joe Meek’s Wikipedia page before I had finished the film. Let’s just say that Meek’s career was defined by a brief, delirious ascension and a long, unhinged decline. And if Telstar’s bleak third act seems completely out of step with the film’s lighthearted first two-thirds, then well, I guess we only have the biographical facts to blame.
Welsh stage actor Con O’Neill turns in a great lead performance as Meek, effortlessly highlighting Meek’s arrogance, loneliness, ambition, and eccentricity. He’s a complex dude: overgrown child, deeply closeted homosexual, haughty egomaniac, fast-talking charmer who convince (almost) anyone to do (almost) everything. He’s an A+ character trapped inside a B- screenplay. For a much better version of a similar character and milieu, check out Steve Coogan as Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People.
But if you’re a fan of the genre, you could find a much worse example of the music biopic than Telstar (*cough* What We Do is Secret *cough*.) At the very least, download “Telstar” on iTunes, tie a sheet around your neck for a cape, and run around the apartment pretending you’re a superhero. Trust me, it’s fun.