Telstar: The Joe Meek Story
Comparisons being odious, let's just say that if La Bamba equals Field of Dreams (Lou Diamond Phillips and Kevin Costner are equally wooden, leaving Esai Morales and James Earl Jones to run off with their respective flicks) and Velvet Goldmine equals For the Love of the Game (both are skin-crawlingly overblown and cliched to the same degree), then maybe That Thing You Do equals A League of Their Own (both are equally sweet and sentimental) and The Commitments equals Bull Durham (similar vibe, except that in these films, all of the principals know they're losers from the get-go), which makes Telstar: The Joe Meek Story the rockin' equivalent of Eight Men Out: the dark side of the dream.
Directed by Nick Moran from a stage play he co-authored with James Hicks, the 2009 Brit film, out on DVD March 20th, tells the story of the flamboyant record producer whose 1962 recording of "Telstar" by the Tornados was the first British record to top the U.S. charts. Meek's innovations in the studio included the use of compression, close-miking and isolation of instruments, echo and reverb, even sampling -- a much more forward-looking approach than, say, Phil Spector's "wall of sound," which involved recording large groups with key instruments doubled and tripled live in the studio.
Without "Telstar," no Pink Floyd: listen to Meek's instrumental, inspired by the communication satellite launched in '62, its melody played on the clavioline (a monophonic keyboard instrument also used by Sun Ra), and you can hear sounds that the Floyd's producer Norman Smith would be trying to replicate five years later -- not just the spacey F/X, but even the timbre of Rick Wright's organ. Unable to play an instrument or write music, Meek communicated his ideas to his studio musicians by singing them onto tape in much the same way Captain Beefheart would before he got his piano.
Meek was a complex character: gay (still a crime in '60s Britain; he was convicted of importuning in 1963, after which he was subject to blackmail -- which the film indicates he handled fairly blandly), amphetamine addicted, obsessed with the occult (he claimed that he'd predicted Buddy Holly's death and that "Remember Me Johnny," a hit for TV star-turned-rocker John Leyton, was written by Holly from the beyond).
He squandered much of his fortune promoting Heinz, a no-talent pretty boy (seen below in a clip from the 1963 film Live It Up, with David Hemmings of Blow Up fame on guitar and Steve Marriott on drums). Meek's royalties for "Telstar" were delayed by a French plagiarism suit (decided in his favor only after his 1967 suicide), and as his financial situation became more and more tenuous, he descended into paranoia and depression, convinced that his competitors were bugging his studio to steal his ideas.
Moran and Hicks' dialogue is sharp, fast, and funny, even after the farce turns tragic and the film takes on a hallucinatory quality that mirrors Meek's growing madness. Con O'Neill, who originated the role of Meek onstage, gives a powerful, nuanced performance, starting out larger than life, then gradually showing us glimpses of his character's vulnerability before his world unravels. Kevin Spacey, playing Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks, the plastics magnate who bankrolled Meek's endeavors, is typically solid (with an English accent that's only sporadically present) but doesn't steal the picture the way you might expect, while Pam Ferris is sympathetic as Meek's long-suffering landlady.
The strong ensemble of supporting players is apparently heavy on actors from Brit TV, but they're unfamiliar enough to U.S. viewers that those of a certain mindset can just have fun trainspotting ("The guitar player with the big rockabilly quiff is Ritchie Blackmore! The drummer who pees his pants in the studio after Meek holds a shotgun to his head is Mitch Mitchell!" and so on). Among the most memorable are J.J. Field, who plays Heinz as an egotistical opportunist; Tom Burks, as lovelorn songwriter Geoff Goddard (who unsuccessfully sued for plagiarism over the Honeycombs' hit "Have I the Right"); and James Corden in a comic turn as Clem Cattini, a notably successful session drummer whom Lester Bangs once ignorantly dismissed in a review of a Lou Reed album. They help elevate Telstar above the level of your average rock 'n' roll biopic.