Telstar - The Joe Meek Story

I was intrigued to watch this movie when it was shown on TV last week having missed it when it was released about five years back and knowing next to nothing about its subject. What I did know- like most people who’ve heard the name- is that Joe Meek produced the first UK record to reach the top of the US charts, `Telstar`. This strange otherworldly instrumental would be an unlikely hit in today’s eclectic music world but for 1962 it is a remarkable achievement. That it was concocted in a ramshackle studio above a shop is even more amazing. Nick Moran’s film seems determined to harness Meek’s spirit and is therefore noisy, over the top, weird and quite fascinating.
"I wonder where the off switch is"
Robert George Meek became a producer after developing an interest in sounds during his childhood. Starting as an engineer his career soon gained enough traction for him to rent three floors above a shop into which he packed all manner of recording equipment and his own brand of unusual methodology. As portrayed in the film with considerable energy by Con O’Neill, Meek uses whatever behaviour he feels will best realise his sonic ambition largely consisting of bullying and yelling at young musicians. Most (including the pre fame likes of Richie Blackmore and Chas from Chas and Dave) are too timid to challenge him, those who do generally end up dodging flying objects or being chased down the stairs. All the while mental illness lurks in the background; as Meek’s grasp on reality gradually slips under the combined pressure of the business, his belief in spiritualism, copious intake of drugs and worry about his homosexuality.

O’ Neill’s bravura performance coupled with Moran’s mostly hectic direction has the whiff of farce in the first half as people come and go as if in a sitcom. Moran shrewdly allows the darkness to build with Meek’s rages becoming less and less logical as he slides into paranoia. In this respect there is a certain in -balance; we never meet the younger formative Meek so it is initially difficult to root for him. He is presented from the off as a fearsome and unhinged person.

This probably doesn't happen in recording studios nowadays

The script’s stage origins are evident by the fact that the film rarely takes the chance to move outside the Holloway Road studio. This gives matters an air of unreality; it is hard to believe Meek remained here, fretting over everything when his records are doing so well. When the film does step outside it gives the impression of Meek being under siege in his bolt hole though there are also some well - staged concert sequences. The advantage of this approach is that there is space for each character to shine courtesy of some excellent performances, notable Pam Ferris as the well-meaning landlady Violet Shenton who puts up with so much chaos above her business and Tom Burke as Meek’s shy co-writer who secretly idolises him but is treated poorly. Kevin Spacey also impresses as Meek’s financial backer.

The film buzzes with the strange music Meek produced and we get an inkling of his attempts to promote his artists while defending his position against the more conventional business. We also see that his flawed judgement as he rejects an early Beatles demo but lavishes large portions of his budget on talentless singer Heinz because he fancies him. Once they become lovers and financial problems mount, Meek starts to lose all perspective. Even the livelier earlier scenes are intercut with shots of a crazed Meek smashing up awards and by the end we reach 1967 when he killed first his landlady- portrayed here as something of an accident- and then himself. Riven with paranoia and amphetamines Meek is a figure we can finally feel sorry for as one by one he rejects everyone. Moran shows them literally vanishing as each character has their final confrontation with him.

Robbie Duke, who as a teenager acted as Meek’s assistant –and perhaps more according to the script- has claimed that the film does not portray the end with accuracy; he has denied he and Meek were anything other than work colleagues and also that he saw the producer kill himself being occupied at that moment helping the stricken Violet. His character is not properly introduced so you do get a sense he is being used to give the denouement more of a dramatic air. As Duke is the only survivor of the three, we have to take his word as to what occurred and the veracity of the film has also been questioned by the family of Heinz.

The conclusion that Moran seems to have reached about Joe Meek is that though he had wild ideas, he needed others to focus and develop them. The narrative is blurry on exactly how much credit he deserves for his hits, the story incomplete enough to give us the full picture. Look up his biog online and you discover a cartload of other records he produced but none are really mentioned here in lieu of the juiciest – and possibly exaggerated- story. Despite this and the hint of theatricality that undermines some of the realism Telstar is a fascinating film that offers a distinctly unglamorous take on fame and success in the 60s.

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