Friday, September 14, 2012

162. TELSTAR: THE JOE MEEK STORY (2008)



Hearing "Telstar" by The Tornados for the first time was a galvanizing moment in my young life, and I've always been fascinated by the legend of do-it-yourself record producer Joe Meek and loved the unique sounds he got onto tape. Likewise, I've been hearing for years that a number of high profile names, including Tom Cruise, have wanted to be involved in a film telling his story, so I was taken aback to discover this fully-fledged UK biopic buried in the "Gay and Lesbian" files of Netflix, which is where you can also find LOST IN TRANSLATION assigned to a list of  "Cerebral Comedies."

There is a great deal about this film that can't be faulted, and ever so much more that can. From the very beginning, the film hurls itself into the ambitious yet misguided task of balancing a sort of manic GARAGE DAYS musical comedy, with lots of minor characters interacting to verge on a point of excitement, beyond which lies the details of heavy depressive STAR 80 tragedy. The energy of it is highly captivating, but the story it tells is rooted in rewritten or disregarded history, informed almost exclusively by the sensationalist approach taken by a notorious BBC ARENA segment devoted to Meek. It overlooks the fact that Meek wasn't just a guy who set up shop in his apartment with hopes of shoehorning his way into the record business, that he was in fact an accomplished recording engineer for major studios in the 1950s. It also makes the various bands he recorded -- including The Honeycombs ("Have I The Right") -- seem like jokes with interchangeable parts, and some of the stories it dramatizes (like Mitch Mitchell, as a young session player, wetting himself in response to Meek pulling a gun on him, à la Phil Spector) don't give us a clear idea of the individuals involved until just before the end credits assigns everyone a proper name. I can't even be sure this happened, since the screenplay by director Nick Moran and James Hicks is also not above inventing incident for the sake of a more time-rooted story, like John Peel showing up to interview Meek for the BBC years before John Ravenscroft adopted that professional name, or Brian Epstein sending Meek tapes of "his boys," in the hopes he'll produce them, which he casually tosses into the dustbin, unheard, with a dismissive "Yeah, yeah, yeah..."

Kevin Spacey appears as Meek's manager Major Wilfred Banks, to give the film some international boxoffice clout, while Con O'Neil gives a powerful, invested performance as Meek. It's riveting on its own terms, especially as he reaches and surpasses his breaking point, though it's not at all true to surviving footage of Meek and inside testimony, which seems to agree that he was always sweet and deferential until those times when he snapped under pressure. I was particularly offended by the insensitive, condescending way the film depicted Meek's obsession with his discovery Heinz (JJ Burt) and the graphic way in which the film depicted his suicide, which again not only doesn't jibe with the eyewitness's account but shows callous disrespect to the artist. Likewise, while the film portrays one of Britain's great originals, a true autodidact and visionary, TELSTAR spends a good deal of its time finding ways to sensationalize and denigrate him, from the best of his ideas to his merest human failings. And so parts of the film I found strangely exhilarating, while much of it left me feeling confused and angry.

Viewed via Netflix.

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