Friday, March 1, 2013

Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (2008)

Written by: Nick Moran, James Hicks
Directed by: Nick Moran
Starring: Con O'Neill, Kevin Spacey, Pam Ferris

Anton Lavey doesn't think metal is properly occult. He says bands like AC/DC (because they're so fucking heavy) and Slayer don't have any occult power because they're too popular and this dilutes their Satanic mojo. Apparently he's never listened to true grim kvlt black metal. No, the music the leader of the Church of Satan thinks is the most devilish is stuff that was once popular but has faded into relative obscurity, like, “Yes, We Have No Bananas”. Seriously. But one of his other examples is a much more credible candidate for having some supernatural juice, partially because the guy who wrote it believed Buddy Holly beamed it into his head from beyond the grave. The more observant among you will have already figured out I'm talking about the #1 selling instrumental pop tune of all time, “Telstar”, because it says it right up there at the top of the article. Go ahead and look again, I'll wait.

Telstar is the story of the life and death of arguably the most influential music producer of the 20th century, Joe Meek (which, again, you probably figured out from the subtitle of the movie, The Joe Meek Story). After what might be the briefest back story in film history (young Joe fiddling with some electronics, his mom calls him for dinner, her voice is picked up and repeated in an echo-effected loop by the tangle of wires and tubes laid out before him), the action proper begins with the first meeting between Meek and long-time writing partner Geoff Goddard. Goddard walks up to Meek's second-floor flat-cum-recording-studio (Meek's landlady accosts him at the end of the sequence about the black gunk dripping through her ceiling and Joe tells her he poured liquid rubber into the floorboards for soundproofing like it's the most obvious and normal thing in the world) during a particularly mad recording session with a backup singer in the bathroom, people running and yelling through all the rooms, and tape and wires crisscrossing everything, and orchestrating it all, Geoff and we in the audience meet Joe (played by the incredible Con O'Neill) for the first time as he thrusts a speaker into Geoff's hands and asks him to point it out the one window in the whole place that isn't covered with soundproofing materials. And then he uses it to scream obscenities at a homeless guy making noise in the alley outside. It's a brilliant scene, and from the first frame he's in O'Neill grabs your attention by the throat and drags it along gasping for breath behind him for the rest of the movie. I know he's playing the main character and all, but I can't remember the last time I saw someone own a movie like this.

From here, with a few brief exceptions where the movie takes a breather and gives us a break in the frenetic action for a longer conversation or to cover a particularly important moment, it's a whirlwind of vignettes covering the highlights of Meek's life from 1963 until he shot his landlady and then himself on Feburary 3, 1967. Just a handful of Meek's 600-odd tracks make the cut, focusing most prominently on his most famous tunes, “Johnny Remember Me”, “Telstar”, “Just Like Eddie”, and, “Have I the Right”. There's so much going on that it's hard to go into more detail without just describing the whole thing, and that's really my one complaint about the movie. I wish it had been longer. There aren't many movies already approaching two hours in length I would say that about, but it really is so goddamn good, and there really is so much more ground to cover about the man, that the impression you're left with isn't that you got the whole story, but that Moran and Hicks and O'Neill have invited you into the world of their obsession (and this movie was made by superfans, for superfans, so obsession is definitely the right word) and left you wanting more.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “What in the gay blue hell are you, Mister Horror Flicks and Heavy Metal, doing writing about a critically acclaimed biopic about a 60's pop music producer!?” Well, the short answer is my good friend Tim over at Checkpoint Telstar wouldn't leave me alone until I watched it. He's one of those superfans I was talking about. Now here's the long answer.

I grew up listening to oldies radio in the car with my parents (before they completely abandoned good taste for pop country and Christian radio...ew). My iTunes list may be 99% metal these days, but I can still sing along with just about any hit from the 50's and 60's you care to name. Joe Meek is one of those guys who just about everyone has heard a few of his songs, you just didn't know it was him. Producers don't get much credit (and in those decades, they had a lot more to do with creating the music than the bands did most of the time) unless you're a music nerd. And since he was the guy who basically invented the modern methods of recording music single-handed (miking all the instruments individually instead of just putting one microphone in the middle of the room and everyone playing at it, for example), if you like any kind of contemporary music at all, you owe him a debt of thanks for it sounding the way it does.

Believe it or not, metal even has some roots in Meek's career. One of the other acts he managed and recorded was Screaming Lord Sutch, who took Screamin' Jay Hawkins's schtick and cranked it up a notch, and whose schtick was in turn taken and turned up another notch by Alice Cooper, whose schtick was then taken by a bunch of kids from Norway who used it to burn down churches.

And if you think this movie doesn't belong in these pages, well, did you not read the thing up top about Buddy Holly's ghost? And that's just about the least crazy thing Meek did. He was the Andy Milligan of the British Invasion, having raging meltdowns, harboring conspiracy theories about practically everyone he knew, at one point even putting a shotgun to a drummer's head and demanding, “Are you going to play it properly or am I going to blow your fucking head off?” Eventually he turned that gun on his landlady and finally himself. I was really not expecting the graphic violence in the movie's final scene, but the head explosion rivals the one in Maniac.

It's strange to think that a man who produced pop music was such a weird and dangerous and self-destructive guy. 60's chart toppers aren't exactly known for their darkness. But when you listen to Meek's music, pay attention to the sound. It doesn't take much to hear all that weirdness and danger seething underneath the very thinnest veneer of bubblegum.

1 comment:

  1. And here's how one tells the difference between someone who liked the movie and someone who is a superfan obsessive.

    The scene at the beginning depicted Joe Meek in childhood learning that by shouting down a gramophone speaker he could impress his voice on the runout groove of the record (something that he mentions in an audio-tape diary excerpted on PORTRAIT OF A GENIUS, the out of print Joe Meek CD box set). What you're watching is the birth of his obsession with recording music. When I saw this scene at the start of the film, the hair stood up on my arms and I knew instantly that the people making the film did their homework and wanted the obsessives in the audience to be happy.