TELSTAR (15) Director: Nick Moran Running time: 119 minutes ***
EVEN by the peculiar standards of the record business, Telstar, a biopic of pop mad scientist Joe Meek, has the makings of a pocket rock opera with sudden death, unrequited love and the occult among its ingredients and walk-on roles for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
But the film wastes no time on overtures and introductory themes, instead plunging straight into the second floor flat of Meek (Con O'Neill), the pioneering record producer and console boffin who keeps new band The Outlaws in one room, a control room in his kitchen, a string section on the stairs and his backing singers in the bathroom. His landlady, Violet Shenton (Pam Ferris), frets about the noise, yet Meek still manages to produce some of the biggest selling records of the period, including the Tornados' Telstar, an otherwordly No1 which could have been recorded by a bottle of musical wasps.
Telstar is co-written and directed by Nick Moran, who you may recall as the lead actor in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. It was supposed to make Moran a star, but didn't. Instead supporting player Vinnie Jones stole his thunder, and it was Jason Statham who went on to become a Hollywood action hero. This lends Telstar a certain piquancy when it touches on the capriciousness of talent-spotting. Rod Stewart auditioned unsuccessfully for Meek, as did Tom Jones and the Beatles, three times ("they're rubbish"). On the other hand, Meek lavished attention on novelties like Screaming Lord Sutch (an astutely cast Justin Hawkins, from the Darkness) and blew large amounts of cash trying to turn his big crush, a 19-year-old blond bacon slicer called Heinz Burt (JJ Feild), into a star.
What causes many to rank him as the greatest record producer of his generation was his dogged artistic autonomy, and his skill as a sound engineer. Moran's camera scans Meek's Heath Robinson-esque litter of electronic paraphernalia; odds and ends he'd picked up from a junk shop and rewired to produce strikingly eccentric sounds. Meek's own wiring was just as messy and unconventional. A volatile mix of paranoia, morbidity, passion and callousness, the film's assertion is that his flamboyant suffering drove him to depression and suicide. Unlike many biopics, however, Telstar doesn't try to elevate the tone deaf Meek into a pop god or a social engineer. At best he was a wayward talent fuelled by uppers and rent boys: this Meek would never inherit the earth, especially when a plagiarism suit brought by a French composer ruinously halted his Telstar royalties and his arrest for public indecency estranged him from his writing partner.
What's refreshing is that the film shows Meek's creative process without the usually cinematic gloss. The novelist Bernard Malamud says that all biography is ultimately fiction, and in films the messiness of writing a novel or a song gets swept aside in favour of an industrious scribbler whose work streams from the inner consciousness directly on to the soundtrack, the musical score surging orgasmically as the work pours forth, complete.
It's an incidental pleasure perhaps, but Telstar comes closer to the real hard work, the procrastination, the dumb luck of inspiration, the coffee, and the rewrites. It's a process that is anything but pretty, especially since Meek was a maniacally driven bully of a boss, quite capable of pulling a gun on his musicians to get the sound he wanted.
First funny, then a harrowing film, Telstar knocks the wind out of the sails of this year's other 60s musical chronicle, The Boat That Rocked. It helps that the performances here are more substantial and engaged. O'Neill contributes a convincing portrait of a Somerfield Phil Spector, a brash tyrant who descends into sweaty desperation when the sound cathedral that is his loo stops flushing out hits. Kevin Spacey as his business partner Major Banks provides stiff upper lipped support and a hilarious spiralled hairpiece, while Ralf Little, James Corden and Tom Burke offer an amusing cross-section of Meek's discoveries. Like Meek's records, Telstar is raw, fatalistic and somewhat crudely put together, but it also boasts both-barrels, mega-watt energy.
On release at Vue, Edinburgh and Glasgow Showcase from Friday