It wasn’t a good omen that this 2008 film didn’t get a release until Summer 2009 – and then only on 33 screens. I enjoyed it as a British film, but it faces all kinds of problems in attracting a wide audience. Perhaps it will finally find the audience it deserves on DVD.
For those not as ancient as me, Joe Meek was a self-taught genius of the 1950s/60s recording industry and the producer of several great British pop hits of the early 1960s. He was also a gay man when sex between consenting males was still illegal in the UK and to cap it all he suffered from depression and became addicted to uppers and downers. (The Wikipedia entry on Meek is comprehensive.) His was a story that came straight out of a pop biopic and it’s perhaps surprising that it hadn’t been produced as a fiction feature before (there have been two documentaries so far). Telstar (the title of his most famous recording from 1962) was first a stageplay, written by Nick Moran and James Hicks and Moran is credited as writer-director of the film adaptation.
I think the film faces two common problems. The story is well-known to a relatively small group of 1960s music fans (and to a general audience aged 60+ who remember the songs). For this audience, the film will be attractive, but there will be doubts about the ‘authenticity’ of the script. For the general cinema audience, many of the references will be obscure and they will either be attracted (or repelled) by the appearance of many UK television personalities (the unfortunate James Corden in particular, cast as the famous drummer Clem Cattini). Inevitably, both audiences will be frustrated by the problems of compression that Moran and Hicks faced in presenting the last six years of Meek’s life on screen. The fans will feel short-changed and the general audience possibly bewildered. The latter is understandable since the story is told using quite a complex structure flitting between childhood memories, the final tragic scenes and the major events of the early 1960s. The most noticeable ‘invention’ would appear to be the collapsing of Meek’s two ‘house bands’ the Outlaws and the Tornados into a trio with flexible members.
This is a common problem with biopics and it is unreasonable, if understandable, to complain about the great gaps in the story. (It would be fascinating to learn something about Meek in the 1950s working as an engineer on major label recordings for instance.) Instead, I think it’s worth thinking about how the film works in terms of the British pop picture of the 1960s/70s and 80s, including the pop biopics. On that score, I think it matches up quite well with films like That’ll Be The Day (1973), although its stage origins do hold it back and the lack of budget means that every show on the road for Heinz and Gene Vincent et al seems to be shot in the same theatre. The stage origins also made me think of Little Voice (1998) and the flashbacks to Meek’s Gloucestershire childhood recalled Denis Potter’s TV plays. In some ways the story is similar to Control (2007), although, of course, that film looks and feels very different because of Anton Corbijn’s distinctive photographer’s approach. The other major film which comes to mind is the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears (1987). Orton was another gay man and conflicted artist whose last days were also in 1967 in the same London borough (Islington) as Joe Meek.
The first half of the film plays as a comedy. Meek was an eccentric figure with his ‘recording studio’ comprising rooms in a flat above a leather goods shop on the Holloway Road (including the backing singer in the toilet). He was also into spiritualism and believed that his hero Buddy Holly had ‘spoken’ to him. Passionate about his recording ideas (he was a genuine innovator), he is portrayed by Con O’Neill as short-tempered, slightly camp and slightly preposterous. O’Neill created the role on stage and he looks good on screen, though I do wonder if a more experienced director might have coaxed a slightly more nuanced performance from him. Some of the younger cast members do sometimes seem to be on a stage. The genre story of a band on the road with a ‘manufactured’ star is also good for several comic scenes. All of this is fine, but personally I would have done without the famous faces of the TV stars and gone for lesser known actors or musicians (there are several musicians in other roles). The comedy might then have seemed more a part of the narrative and the shift to tragedy in the second half would have been smoother.
The songs used in the film are mostly the original recordings and the overall sound design seemed fine to me. I was very taken by the opening credits and by the use of B+W filmed TV archive material from the early 1960s – but the closing titles looked clunky. Overall, I thought this was a very worthwhile effort that continued a tradition of British pop biopics and social dramas of the early 1960s. And if you were wondering, Kevin Spacey does a good job as that familiar figure from the period, the ‘Major’ who acts as Meek’s business partner.