Telstar (UK 2008)

Carl Barât as Gene Vincent with the Outlaws/Tornados (Ralf Little, James Corden and Mathew Baynton

Carl Barât as Gene Vincent with the Outlaws/Tornados (Ralf Little, James Corden and Mathew Baynton

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.

7 responses to “Telstar (UK 2008)

  1. You mention an excellent point: I was one of those audience members that was both disappointed in its near total disregard for facts (you are WAY too kind to its director) and the incoherency of its structure. This is not an interesting film. It is an interesting subject. I offer proof by mentioning that there is an excellent American documentary about Meek currently in production called A LIFE IN THE DEATH OF JOE MEEK, which I had seen as a work-in-progress at Raindance Film Festival in London about a year ago. In the same running time, the same material took on a broader scope and delivered it with an ear for education, insight, humor and compassion while certainly presenting several sides to every story. It’s a very rich, rewarding film and was the instigating factor in my wanting to see TELSTAR. It simply shows that 2 hours was more than enough time to present facts that can entertain as well as inform and still be coherent. If I hadn’t known who Meek was prior to TELSTAR, I probably would have walked out well before the end. This is a very disingenuous, poorly conceived film. No excuse and I would hope that, by now, the reviews would start being honest about it.

    • Yes, I saw your original post about the screening of the documentary on another website. I don’t disagree with your antipathy towards Telstar in terms of its mangling of the real story. But a fiction feature is not a documentary and they operate under different conventions. Perhaps you saw both Control and the documentaries on Joy Division that came out a couple of years ago? The same issues arose there (although Control is a much better film than Telstar .

      Our purpose here is to place films in terms of their genres, audiences, questions of national cinemas etc. – all the issues that Film Studies is interested in. We don’t attempt to score or rate films but simply to contextualise them. In that sense Telstar is an interesting film, despite its obvious failings. Your response is indicative of what some audiences have thought about the film and I’m grateful that you offered it.

  2. I totaly disagree with Danielle’s comments in the post. I saw ‘Telstar’ at the London Film Festival and thought it was a wonderful film. How you can possibly compare a documentary and a feature film is beyond me. No one was with Joe Meek 24-7 so no one can say waht his comings and goings were motivated by. Nick MOran has made assumptions but what bio pic doesn’t? I say congratulations to the film makers on a fantastic achievment. To all the cast (especially O’neill who is just spell-binding)and to the designers who managed to capture the era perfectly. And finally to suggest that the reviewers are being dishonest is just silly, why would they be dishonest? What could they possibly gain from being dishonest?

  3. Being one of the “over 60s” to whom you referred, and a fan of Joe Meek since about 1960, I guess I fall into that section of audience who knows something about the man and his recorded output. Bluntly, anyone wanting to gain factual information should see the documentary Danielle quoted or read John Repsch’s book on Joe; this was a drama with music that harkened back to a time of my past and I looked at it with nostalgia. There were glaring errors in the film, and not so glaring omissions, but as entertainment (until the end), it held together quite well.

    I watched the DVD with my wife – at 8 years my junior she doesn’t remember the ’60s until the end of that decade and doesn’t have my interest in Joe Meek. She found it entertaining, and remembered most of the songs, if not the instrumentals, but often found it confusing, and the “black magic” scene with the pentangle et al finally betrayed its stage origins. However, she really liked the film as a whole and has recommended it to others.

    I’d like to be able to see it ‘at a cinema near me’ to hear the sound quality and to see the performances ‘writ large’, however I suspect it will be one of Kevin Spacey’s more forgotten vehicles if only because foreign (especially USA) audiences will find it devoid of the nostalgia we Brits have for it, and younger audiences, even here in the UK, will be confused by it. Spacey does, nevertheless, do a good job as Major Banks and is probably gives the most accurate portrayal in the film. I’m not holding my breath to see the film distributed in my local Odeon, nevertheless.

    I agree with venicelion’s review of the film on the whole: it is a movie biopic, not a documentary, but as a biopic it should at least deal with the (known) facts accurately, or it will wander into the realms of fantasy. “Telstar:The Movie” takes liberties with accuracy, but not so much that it can be considered fantastical although it should be said (again) that if you want an accurate portrayal of Joe Meek, the man and his music, this film is not the place to look for it. However, the film is very entertaining and if anyone gets the chance to see it, they will not be disappointed.

  4. I thought the film was well shot and captured the era extremely well unfortunatley Moran took far too many liberties in the portrayal of not only events but Meek and others. It did in fact upset quite a number of people some who were in fact betrayed by Moran. There was no need to tart up or distort a story that already had enough drama in there to start with.
    It could have been a superb film rather than average

  5. I’m pleased to see two more comments as a sign that people are watching the film on DVD. I’m afraid that I agree with Graham that chances of seeing it in a cinema again are pretty remote. When we had repertory cinemas and enterprising programmers who would put together double bills of re-releases it might have stood more chance of getting a second big screen outing. I think it would be interesting to see the film in a bill with Prick Up Your Ears or An Education, both biopics of a kind set in that by now almost mythical period which Larkin defined as “between the Chatterley trial and the Beatles’ first LP”. A more direct pop music bio double bill might pair it with Nowhere Boy.

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