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Thursday, July 10, 2014
Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (2008)
Written by Nick Moran and James Hicks
Directed by Nick Moran
Con O'Neill: Joe Meek
Tom Burke: Geoff Goddard
Pam Ferris: Mrs. Violet Shenton
JJ Feild: Heinz Burt
With an unrecognizable Kevin Spacey as Major Banks
Featuring John Leyton, Clem Cattini, Chas Hodges, Patrick Pink, Carl Barat, Justin Hawkins, Jess Conrad and Jake Arnott in a series of cameos
On July 10, 1962, the first active communications satellite was successfully launched; Telstar I ushered in a new age of instantaneous electronic communications between continents and was the first American victory in the space race; finally, the capitalists did something other than play catchup to the USSR. It was the great-great-great-grandfather, technologically, of the internet and if it weren't for Telstar you'd have to do something more fulfilling and enlightening than read cult movie reviews on the internet.
What a horrible world that would be.
The satellite inspired Robert George "Joe" Meek, the first independent record producer in England, to write a song that nobody in the world thought would be a hit (I've heard interviews with the band members who recorded the track, saying they hoped they wouldn't be credited on the single because they thought it would end their careers before they began). It was an instrumental played on the clavioline, a synthesizer so primitive that it couldn't play chords--just single notes. The start and fadeout of the song featured all kinds of insanely complicated science-fictional noises--and incidentally, nobody's ever been able to replicate those sounds. Lots of people have tried. None have succeeded.
The song, "Telstar", sold five million copies. It was the first 45 from a British group to hit #1 in the United States, so it was also the opening shot of the British Invasion. Like the Beatles? The Stones? The Who? You know about them, at least tangentially, because of Joe Meek. Things didn't end well for the pioneer; during an amphetamine-fueled psychotic break he shot his landlady and then committed suicide. He died penniless due to a spurious lawsuit filed against him to try and claim the royalties to "Telstar". Also, if anyone out there in my readership knows Jean LeDrut, tell him he's an asshole.
And more than four decades after Meek's death, the curly-haired guy from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels co-wrote and directed a movie about him. Speaking as someone who's had "Telstar" stuck in his head for sixteen years and counting, owns every Joe Meek CD released in the English-speaking world and who has a degree in film studies, I'm probably the person most predisposed to hate the movie for any inaccuracies in the story, for condensing a several-year career into 99 minutes of film, or for reflecting badly on one of my cultural heroes, or maybe just for not quite living up to the promise of the material (Moran was a first-time director, after all, and how often to they make a masterpiece the first time out?).
It's damned close to being a masterpiece.
The film starts with a scene that makes perfect sense to an audience that doesn't know anything about Joe Meek; a young boy is goofing around in a shed with a soldering iron and a bunch of 1930s-vintage electronic equipment. A hand-cranked record player scratches along repetitively, the needle dragging through the runout groove at the end of an old 78. His mother calls him in to the house, and he yells that he'll be along "In a minute!"; the shout, echoing through the speaker tube of the old gramophone and gets impressed onto the record. The hair on my arms stood up when I realized the movie started with the first Joe Meek recording.
And why is that so important? Because if you like pop and rock music, Joe Meek is the most important man you've never heard of. Among other things, he was the first record producer to put a microphone on individual instruments to get a cleaner tone (rather than the "stick a mike in the middle of the room and have everyone play at it" scheme used from the 1890s till then). Think about that--it was actually a radical act to try and make the songs sound clearer. And, if the legends are true, messing around with the balance boards and doing other seriously unconventional things like putting a microphone inside a drum for a cleaner sound got Meek fired from every record label in London. Why did the next place hire him? Because even at the dawn of his career, he was that good (the Meek-engineered "Bad Penny Blues" by Humphrey Lyttleton was the first jazz single to crack the top 20 in the UK; even the performer credited Joe Meek with the record's success rather than saying he wrote a hit). All right. Digression over.
Based on that first 30 second sequence, I decided to trust the director and not preemptively hate on his film. It won me over in less than half a minute, featuring none of the actors that would be in the rest of the movie. Quite an achievement for anyone, now that I think about it. The scene Moran presented was one that was mentioned on an excerpt from an audio-tape diary that Meek kept when he was in London producing records (I heard it because it's on the out-of-print box set Portrait of a Genius: The RGM Sound; of course I bought a copy the day it was released).
The scene fades to the present, with a family photo being tossed onto a fire. And now I know this film won't have a happy ending, because I know exactly what that scene fragment is promising. And even if you weren't a huge Meek obsessive like me, you'd be able to tell from the grey, washed-out cinematography that it's not good times ahead for whoever that little kid is going to grow up to become even if the fact that he's sitting alone in a room burning mementos while dressed in black head-to-toe didn't clue you in.
And then the titles! Lots of shots of pre-Beatles London, the swinging big city of electric lights and fashionable young men and women taking control of pop culture. Boss haircuts! Clothing that's a splash of color (or, perhaps more properly, "colour") in a sea of staid middle-aged people wearing sober dark suits! And--last but not least--numerous clips of people working the controls on sound boards and pressing records at plastics plant. This is the rare musical biopic that remembers those discs have to be manufactured, by the producer and by the pressing plant. I don't believe Ray or Walk the Line or The Doors or The Buddy Holly Story or This is Elvis or La Bamba spent any time watching the singles get stamped out on pressing machines. There's a tendency in rock and pop biopics to present the star as a creative force in a vacuum and I do appreciate that this one corrects that tendency, at least a little.
The film starts with an outsider's view; a young man in a suit, tie and scarf looking in at a television set in a shop window that's showing a promo for "Harper's West One", an evening drama / soap opera about the staff of a department store in London. The ad promises a special appearance by John Leyton, star of "Biggles" (an adventure show about a fighter ace in the first World War); the young man walks away from the appliance store and next door to a handbag and luggage shop at 304 Holloway Road. A brief and inconclusive conversation with Mrs. Violet Shenton follows, and he gets sent to an upstairs flat crowded with musicians and a somewhat belligerent older man who addresses him as "Anton Hollywood" and tries to shove him out the door. The younger man haltingly explains that he's actually named Geoff Goddard and they're recording his song that day. The "Anton Hollywood" business is explained thusly--he was going to be a piano-playing pop star under that pseudonym, but it turns out that he made little grunting noises while he was playing the piano and Meek summarily dismissed the idea of him ever being a star. The older man also mentions that he knows nothing at all about music, but he owns a plastics factory and likes the idea of selling a couple pence' worth of vinyl for a quid. He namechecks skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan as the catalyst for starting up a record label, although he does call him "Lenny". And thinking of "Joe Meek got fired from record companies a lot", watch for the Coen Brothers-style intrusive flashback during a Lonnie Donegan session that shows one of the reasons Meek got sacked.
Meek moves down the upper stairs like a force of nature, explaining why the backup singers are in the bathroom ("Once I've done my magic and added some reverb, it'll sound like a cathedral. Oh, do you need to go?" Geoff: "No, it'd be embarrasing.") The financier (later revealed to be named Major Banks, because sometimes real people have names like Steve Ditko created them) thinks that backup singers and an orchestra is wastefully extravagant. Meek counters that this single is their first chance for a hit and it can't sound cheap, and besides, it's just two violinists and a guy on a borrowed cello--hardly a full orchestra. Not that he could pack any more string musicians into the closet they're playing in. The movie takes a little while making things clear, but Joe Meek built a full functional record studio in his flat (or lived in the tiny space available in the studio, if you look at it that way). Everything's cluttered with recording equipment or promotional posters and there's barely room to turn around anywhere. It may be cramped but Geoff Goddard likes the energy there, and he's only set foot in the place ten minutes ago.
Things only get more chaotic with the arrival of the promised John Leyton as well as the Outlaws, Joe's studio band (Clem Cattini, by the way, holds a world record for playing on more #1 hits than any other drummer; the real-life Clem has a cameo as the driver dropping John Leyton off for the recording session. One assumes his opinion of the neighborhood that RGM Studios is located in hasn't changed since 1961.) Everyone's rushing about trying to get set up, with the band griping about having to carry all their gear up three flights of stairs. The drummer has the worst time of it, of course, and the sudden rainstorm outside means that the Outlaws' stage costumes are getting soaked and the dye is running. There's a neat running gag here, as well; every time someone asks why the band doesn't have anything to protect themselves from the weather more and more people inform the person asking the question that cowboys didn't have umbrellas.
At the same time, there's a strangely intimate scene between Meek and Goddard where the songwriter asks the producer if it's true about an occult ritual that Meek performed that predicted Buddy Holly's death (he got the month and day right and the year off by one--he tried to warn Buddy Holly to watch out for February 3 but it didn't help). Knowing what I know about Joe Meek (he was gay, at a time when it was illegal to be gay in Britain, and terrified that he'd be outed and embarrass his family) there's a certain amount of subtext to the scene, when Goddard says he's heard something weird about the other man. Watching them bond over a shared interest in spiritualism and seances gives the opening of the film a brief respite from the frantic activity when setting up the recording session. They're also filmed in a triangle--both men facing each other with a framed picture of Buddy Holly on the wall between them. Which is extremely fitting; both men were enormous fans of the late rock legend, with Meek eventually holding seances in order to get songwriting advice from beyond the grave.
Leyton gets waylaid by Mrs. Shenton and has a cup of tea before joining the band. He gives a little monologue about how people only expect to see him in a bomber jacket because of his television work, but he spent years at drama school and could play all kinds of parts. Ironically, the only other acting job Leyton held that most people would have heard about also has him in an RAF jacket; he was the tunnel king that wasn't Charles Bronson in The Great Escape. While he's chatting with the landlady Meek goes from good-humored to furious as the band gets silly about working with Leyton and spitting out dialogue from Biggles. Meek runs off to put a suit jacket on before meeting the famous actor; the guitarist tries to sass the amateur singer and learns that improv and drama school make it possible to mock someone right back. There's also a great line about what exactly a microphone is for in this sequence and a pretty good sight gag at Leyton's expense (he's too short for the mike in the main studio).
Once everyone's in position to record the song we get the movie's first listen at what a Joe Meek track really sounds like (though the quite good "Theme from The Traitors" plays over the opening titles, it's not one of the Big Massive Tracks that I'd say typify the Joe Meek sound). There was an artistic choice here, and it's one I completely agree with. Instead of having the band record the track and then getting the post-production playback, the viewer (and listener) just gets to hear "Johnny Remember Me", the first #1 single off Meek's independent record label. The actors all do a very fine job miming and lip-synching, and there's a couple of flash-forwards--one to Meek and Goddard at a psychic circle asking the spirit of Buddy Holly if the record will be a hit, and one of the band on stage with John Leyton performing once it's topped the charts. There's also a montage of music newsletter front pages crediting Goddard and Holly for the song's success (any publicity is good publicity, right?) and celebrity news saying that John Leyton's gone from TV to pop music to film. During this sequence we also see that Goddard appears to be more than a little smitten with the producer (he's looking at Meek rather than at the camera for their silver record award ceremony).
And then it's back to the present day, with a haunted-looking Joe Meek breaking his record award in half and throwing it into the rubbish tin full of burning papers and photos. Just in case you forgot where this was all going.
That's only the first twenty minutes, by the way. An astounding amount of world-building and character introduction along with a whirlwind of sound and fury, flashbacks, montages, and all kinds of tricks that make the movie look considerably more cinematic than you'd expect from a filmed play set almost entirely in Meek's home / recording studio.
Next up Goddard and Meek are noodling around on the studio piano, trying to come up with a song that can be associated with the Tornados (the new name for the Outlaws); they're the backing band for vocalist Billy Fury while he's touring. Joe wants to write an instrumental that they'll play on their own before the singer joins them for the rest of the show (and Nick Moran shows he's a superfan here, working in the fact that Meek stuck metal drawing pins in the piano hammers to get a more sparkly sound). Meek unpacks and plugs in a clavioline, which was the height of high technology in 1961, but looks roughly the same as one of those massive 1980s cell phones that look like a grey housebrick with a rubber antenna in retrospect. Geoff assures him that a song will eventually come to them and admires the keyboard for its aloof, alien and alienating sound.
During this brainstorming session, Fury's manager calls Joe up to tell him that they're perfectly willing to use a talented band to play behind Fury on stage, but that they don't feel the need to let Meek write or produce any music for Billy Fury. Meek takes it incredibly personally (it doesn't help that the manager takes a shot at the low-budget setup at 304 Holloway Road). A serious mood swing is imminent when a gangling bassist named Heinz Burt shows up for an audition; Meek falls in love essentially at first sight. He gives Heinz money to run to the drugstore for over-the-counter amphetamines ("diet pills" in the parlance of the times) and then promises to give him an audition.
The film skips ahead to July of 1962, when Meek and Heinz, now living together in the flat, are watching a news report on the Telstar satellite. I grinned like a fool when I saw that the side-of-the-screen graphic for my blog was taken from that news clip, incidentally. Meek watches the rest of the news report by himself, fascinated with the visions of the future unspooling in front of him on the telly. We see a shooting star through the window as he wakes up from a fitful sleep (the third one in the movie--one streaked through the sky when Geoff Goddard had the idea for "Johnny Remember Me" and another was in the prologue where a boy yells into a gramophone and destiny comes into his life).
The next thing to happen in the movie really did happen. I've heard the demo tape. Joe Meek plugs a mike into a reel-to-reel recorder and sings something that is just barely recognizable as "Telstar"--or music, for that matter--into the mike, which he then played for his band and for Geoff Goddard as an attempt to tell them what the music inside his head sounded like. By any aesthetic standard you'd care to use, it's appalling.
(Alan Caddy, who would play as a session musician for decades, is quoted in the film as saying "I can't possibly play guitar to this."; he's right.) There's a touch of artistic license as the recording session overpowers the signal on Violet Shenton's radio, causing some broom-handle-against-the-ceiling interference, but eventually the rhythm guitar and drum parts are laid down. We do get another example of Joe Meek's volcanic temper here, with Caddy listing all the other bands he's done sessions for that don't act like the things he's seeing.
Major Banks comes back into the story, complaining about the sheer number of expensive master-quality tapes he has to buy for RGM Sound ("What does he need all these tapes for?" "Dunno...recording?"). There's more tension in the air between Banks and Meek; the financier actually makes a lot of really good points about the cash flow from record sales and the need to grow slowly when starting a new business and Meek isn't having any of it. If he hadn't had that #1 single I can't imagine that Banks would want anything to do with him after the rudeness displayed in this meeting. Meek's also quite a jerk to his full-time assistant, Patrick Pink (although he does also say how nice it is that he can trust the man with money, which apparently wasn't the case for everyone that Meek had a business relationship with).
Also, a moment to congratulate the movie for not sugarcoating what a raging asshole Joe Meek could be to everyone around him. The closest comparison I'm comfortable with is Ed Wood; having read Nightmare of Ecstasy, the biography of the late director compiled via interviews with his actors, friends and creditors, I can authoritatively say the movie gets everything wrong in an attempt to keep the story light and funny. The tone of the Tim Burton movie is spectacular, incidentally, but the screenplay is completely inaccurate. The tone and the script in Telstar are almost always dead on by way of contrast. And of course, this movie was never even released in American theaters and failed to make much of an impact in Britain--so maybe a little bit of sugar coating would have helped its box office reception.
And of course right after I talk about the accuracy of the script, Joe goes down to his business office to take a phone call from Brian Epstein and turn down the Beatles. Which he actually did, along with more than a dozen other labels and producers (though the movie puts "Beatles" on the demo tape label instead of "Quarrymen", which I'm reasonably sure the Liverpool quartet were using for a name at that point in their careers). The tape gets chucked in a rubbish tin as punctuation to a conversation where Clem Cattini vents his spleen about the way the musicians have been treated recently; Banks says that the musicians should trust their producer / manager's judgment seconds prior to the shot of the demo tape getting tossed.
Clem and Alan leave the session; Geoff Goddard arrives and the film launches into a montage that brought me to literal tears the first time I saw it. Over the entirety of "Telstar", the film shows the namesake satellite orbiting the Earth, the Tornados in performance, fragments of news reports in 1962 (including a press conference from JFK where he mentions that he's being broadcast via the satellite at that very moment) and the band's stratospheric rise to the top of the pop charts in both the UK and America. The record sells two million copies in England alone, and cements Meek's reputation as a musical miracle worker, at least for the time being. Also, the real Patrick Pink shows up as the stagehand who gives Meek a telegram in this sequence. Also, I'm very glad that the movie gives Geoff Goddard credit for composing a substantial part of the melody of "Telstar". He was a partner in the creative endeavors, and I'm glad that the movie doesn't ignore his abilities in the interest of building Meek up (check out the dick move when Meek wins the Ivor Novello award for music innovation; he shoves Goddard back down into his chair before going up to make a speech and thank his mother--this scene shows him at his best and worst simultaneously).
Here's the montage, incidentally. You really can't tell that the movie didn't have much money to spend, can you? Although I'm pretty sure that's Kevin Spacey as the unnamed disc jockey pointing out that the Tornados are the first British band to top the charts in the States; maybe he had a free five minutes and they had a tape deck handy to get that line recorded. And with that magnificently laid out montage, for three and a half minutes Joe Meek is on top of the world. I think watching Billy Fury yell at his manager about missing out on a record-setting single might have been more satisfying to Meek than selling two million records.
Of course, when you're on top of the world the only place you can go is down.
And again, to the filmmakers' credit, they don't sugarcoat the downward spiral at all. A series of disastrous business decisions and a meritless lawsuit either use up or freeze all the money that Meek should have made off of the "Telstar" single. His drug use eats away at his personality, which was never all that sunny to begin with. He becomes paranoid, thinking that people are spying on him, monitoring his thoughts and trying to steal his production techniques.
The last thing he was worried about was true, incidentally--it's more than a little inside baseball, but the percussion track to Meek's last #1 hit, the Honeycombs' "Have I the Right", was actually the band stamping on the wooden stairs in the apartment (in a rare lapse, the movie declines to show this and instead has a dozen people all beating drums in unison. I think it was too tough to fit a camera and all the actors in the stairway on the set, but I have no actual information about this). Take a listen to the Dave Clark Five's "Bits and Pieces"--which is a fantastic track, by the way. But it's got a drum track as well as a stamping-feet track, and if the rumors can be believed one of Meek's assistants was the one who produced that song for the DC5. But even if they are watching you and stealing your ideas, you can still be paranoid. And Meek definitely was.
During this same time, the Tornados are on a lengthy tour and Meek is trying to get another hit single (one of his commercially unsustainable ideas was an uptempo song about Jack the Ripper recorded by an R&B enthusiast calling himself Screaming Lord Sutch). Although it was and is a spectacular example of the Joe Meek sound, I think it was somewhere between naive and delusional to expect mainstream audiences to want to hear that on the radio in 1963.
Meek's repeated attempts to make Heinz--perhaps a less talented bassist than Sid Vicious--a star failed to bear fruit, although the tribute track "Just Like Eddie" is a typically excellent Joe Meek production. But you can only catch lightning in a jar so many times, and Heinz wasn't ever the kind of talent that could have had any more hits. Unfortunately in an attempt to seduce the bassist, Meek kept plying him with gifts, including a sports car and a boat ("Even Elvis Presley doesn't have a boat!") and with the hits decreasing in frequency and the royalties to "Telstar" frozen, the money was rapidly gone.
During this time, Meek's mental issues got worse and worse; among other things, he pulled a shotgun on Mitch Mitchell (who would later play drums for the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and offering him two options: Play his part properly or get his fucking head blown off. At the same time he poisoned his working relationships with Major Banks and Geoff Goddard, losing critical financial and artistic support just when he needed them the most. On top of that, the Beatles were rewriting the rules for pop and rock music and leaving the shiny-suit bands like the Tornados far behind in the cultural landscape. Bands were recording albums instead of singles and Meek, for all his production wizardry, was spectacularly ill-suited for a system where the bands called the shots on how the records were supposed to sound.
Clem Cattini wound up playing drums for a new combo called the Kinks, incidentally. It's definitely too bad that they never recorded anything for Meek, but on the other hand someone was going to get thrown out a window if Ray Davies and Joe Meek had creative differences during a recording session.
During this same period, Meek was arrested for "importuning", the police code for homosexual activity, and was blackmailed by people who made it their business to know who had their collar felt for illegal gayness. Since Meek was terrified that exposure would wreck his music career and humiliate his family, he paid the blackmailers rather than risk ruination.
During this timespan there's an almost unwatchably painful scene where Heinz leaves Joe for the last time and he tries to pull himself together enough to mix a song; it's the staircase-stomping track referenced above, his last #1 hit on the English charts, and it has a chorus that sounds like he's having his heart torn out while working on the mix:
Come right back, I just can't bear it
I've got some love and I long to share it
The song is a joyously noisy chaos of guitar and thudding percussion; if I played it for you and said it was actually the Clash you might have been convinced. But the lyrics, written on their own, look like a suicide note.
And that leads up to where the story ends. Penniless and having a psychotic break thanks to years of amphetamine abuse, a sweat-soaked and exhausted Meek winds up waving a shotgun around in his filthy, dimly lit bedroom and babbling about how everything's gone wrong. He doesn't even realize how little sense he's making as he questions Mrs. Shenton about who a mystery man is that he's seen around the handbag store; it turns out to be a real estate agent because the Shentons are planning to retire and sell off the shop as well as the flat that Meek has been living in.
And that finally penetrates the haze of drugs and fear; it wasn't Phil Spector or George Martin trying to plant bugs in his flat in order to figure out his production gimmicks, it was just economic reality working around the edges of Meek's life while he barely noticed it. And during this discussion, the shotgun goes off, fatally wounding Violet Shenton.
Everyone who knows what actually happened in that room at 304 Holloway Road died there that day. I prefer to think, as the movie presents, that it was a horrible and preventable accident. Meek was a killer, but I hope he wasn't a murderer. And when he realized what he'd done, Joe Meek took the still-warm gun in his hands, turned the muzzle around and ended his own life on February 3, 1967. It was eight years to the day after the plane crash that killed Richie Valens, the Big Bopper and Meek's beloved inspiration Buddy Holly.
The film stands as a tribute to the most famous person in pop music that you've never heard of. Con O'Neill gives a performance that, fittingly enough, seems to blur the line between portrayal and possession. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. The sets and props have the air of total authenticity and the script gives everyone a perfect foundation to build their work. Everyone involved should be proud of themselves. It doesn't matter what the final score is at the box office. This one's unquestionably gold. I'm proud to say I'm in the cult for Telstar, and delighted beyond my ability to express that the movie lived up to and surpassed my expectations.
Other Celluloid Zeroes have reviewed this movie as well. You can read their takes on it at the following links: