Wednesday, July 22, 2009
'Telstar' is the story of the productive and final few years of the life of Joe Meek, a talented but unstable record producer from the middle of the last century. From the flat over a shop that he converted into a recording studio he produced songs that would become genre classics, only to finish it all bankrupt, paranoid, depressed and with a shotgun bullet through the back of the skull.
'Telstar' starts with about twenty-five minutes that is comedy gold as we see the chaos Meek already lives in, and ends with forty-five harrowing minutes as we see his total mental collapse, fuelled by drugs, the homophobic era he lives in, bad luck and his galloping ego pushing away almost everyone who could have saved him. However, it would be charitable to say the script is uneven and badly paced, through the first half of the film we have several flash-forwards towards what happens near the end, at the end we have some flash-backs towards some events in his childhood, both are unnecessary and disrupt the flow, especially the flash-backs as they are just an illustration of something Joe describes earlier in the film about a childhood encounter with phosphorous. I know biographical films have always chosen to concentrate on some key point in their subject's life but 'Telstar' never really gives much of a suggestion that Joe Meek didn't just magically appear on the Holloway Road in his early Thirties. Interestingly, despite the fact that the script keeps Meek in his studio for the bulk of the film no effort is made to suggest a claustrophobia to this, sure people throw things about every now and then but it generally seems a pleasant environment even when Joe is trying to summon the devil or is smashing and burning all his possessions. However, without those closest to Meek available to give their opinions of the man and those still going (like Chas from Chas and Dave) unlikely to be favourable, an endeavour like this is bound to be more writer's guesswork than grounded in verifiable fact.
The strength of the film, and boy is it really a strength, is the performances. Everyone is superb. Con O'Neill as Meek is wonderful and has to be, his performance rounds out a character that, on paper, doesn't have much depth. His performance sends him right round the block, sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, loving, casually-cruel, bloated with self-importance, racked by self-doubt. As a gay man before homosexuality was decriminalised he has the de rigeur arrest for public indecency which seems to end up with a gang of young men waiting outside his flat to throw abuse at him and anyone connected with him with no apparent attempt made to do anything about them. Some of the criticisms about 'Milk' was that the film whitewashes Harvey's sex life so as to try not to lose the sympathy of monogamous straight people who might be turned off by the truth of his lifestyle. British queer films back to 'Prick Up Your Ears' have tended to be a little bit more honest and we have Meek sloping off to Hampstead Heath (about two miles up the road for anyone unfamiliar with North London geography) and cottaging in the capital's public conveniences. His one apparently serious relationship is with Heinz Burt, played by JJ Feild.
Burt is the main comic relief of the film, apparently willing to be seduced and cosseted by Meek, Burt isn't the sharpest tool in the box and ends up following the same career trajectory as Meek, only quicker due to his lack of talent and able to jump off before reaching the tragic end. Feild plays him as a cockney spiv of the type that should be able to talk without moving their mouth. Blind to his lack of talents Meek puts a lot of his time and money into trying to make Burt a star in order to win his love, when it doesn't work it has to be the fault of everyone including Meek, not Burt. At an early gig Burt has a tin of beans emptied over him and doesn't have the wit to realise that his attacker, a teddy boy, has a knife, so his bandmates have to ridicule him in order to save his life and defuse the situation. He then lashes out at them because he doesn't understand the danger he was in.
James Corden and Ralf Little through in admirable turns as the long-suffering Tornados, session musicians for Joe and backing band for Burt. Little played Peter Hook in '24 Hour Party People' and plays another guitarist, Chas Hodges, though I don't know what it says about him that he's only willing to walk out on Meek after he's lost it to the point that he uses a gun to try and threaten the performance he wants out of artists. Tom Burke plays the tragic Geoff Goddard, a painfully shy man who loves Meek from the moment they meet but is never appreciated by Joe who is far more obsessed with Burt. Often unable to meet the gaze of other characters Goddard tries to give Meek a gift to celebrate eighteen months of 'their professional relationship', only to have Meek toss it aside carelessly and break it in seconds. The film positions him as being the person most responsible for transferring a demo tape of Meek's tuneless humming into what would be their biggest hit, 'Telstar', but the film then takes such a confused gallop through Meek's professional life it's hard to see what Goddard hangs around for, other than to be a verbal punching bag.
Rounding off, Kevin Spacey manages a performance as Meek's financial partner, Major Banks, that despite being a fusty old traditionalist, avoids becoming a parody. He hangs in long after common sense would dictate to bail on Meek and is genuinely disappointed that Meek is determined to follow a path that can only lead to self-destruction. Pam Ferris as Meek's very long suffering landlady Mrs Shenton tries her best but when the script requires her to do little more than complain about the noise and that the rent is late she is wasted, and by the end that becomes true in more ways than one.
So the film is certainly worth seeing, though desperately uneven. To it's credit it's not about a self-destructive gay man, it's about a self-destructive man who just happened to be gay. How close it is to the truth is probably impossible to tell, but Con O'Neill gives such a performance it doesn't matter, and it's worth recommending it on that alone.