The energy, craziness and often downright shabbiness of London’s early ’60s, pre-Beatles pop biz are vividly brought to life in “Telstar: The Joe Meek Story,” a biopic of the legendary producer-composer of one of the bestselling records of all time. Bigscreen helming debut of thesp-writer Nick Moran (cardsharp Eddy in “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) fairly crackles with character and period flavor for its first 90 minutes but is let down by a repetitive and tiresomely maudlin final half-hour. Cutting by 20 minutes would benefit pic’s chances as a modest retro item.
Now largely forgotten except by specialists, Meek was a maverick, do-it-yourself producer who pioneered techniques (like multiple overdubbing, close miking and reverb) that later became standard in pop music. Operating from a home studio above a handbag shop in Islington, north London, Meek rode high on instrumental megahit “Telstar” — the first Britband single to top the U.S. charts — but less than five years later, after shooting his landlady, committed suicide in February 1967.
Though most of the movie is set in the tiny, three-floor apartment where Meek lived and worked — re-created with striking naturalism by production designer Russell de Rozario and art director Joe Howard — tight cutting by Alex Marsh and mobile Steadicam work by Peter Wignall (an ace d.p. whose prior work includes “Lock, Stock”) keep at bay any feelings that pic is simply a bigscreen transposition of the legit play by Moran and James Hicks (which opened in 2005).
Point of entry for the audience is Geoff Goddard (Tom Burke), who arrives in 1961, at the legendary 304 Holloway Road address, after having a tune accepted by Meek (Con O’Neill, reprising his stage perf). Chaos of the so-called “studio” is succinctly drawn: a singer in the toilet, the “orchestra” in another room, Meek running hither and yon, and the whole shebang funded by Major Banks (Kevin Spacey, with an impeccable accent).
The painfully shy Goddard and histrionic Meek bond through a shared fascination with the occult and Buddy Holly, and Meek (who can’t read a note of music) sees someone he can dominate. Meek manages a recalcitrant band, the Tornados, but aches to be accepted into the pop world’s real hierarchy and to record artists like Billy Fury (Jon Lee).
Look and acting styles of the early reels strongly recall Brit movies of the period, from Spacey’s stiff-upper-lip ex-army major, through Pam Ferris’ gossipy landlady, to J.J. Feild’s spot-on impersonation of blond singer Heinz. There’s also the uncanny experience, for older auds, of seeing surviving names from the era — such as singers John Leyton and Jess Conrad, plus Tornados drummer Clem Cattini — cast in small roles, as well as being portrayed onscreen by lookalike actors. Conrad’s cameo as legendary producer Larry Parnes alone is a tiny gem of bitchy bonhomie.
In its initial stages, the setting’s strong gay element is discreetly downplayed, with Meek’s attraction to Heinz (which will ultimately contribute to his downfall) soft-pedaled.
Meek’s lousy business sense, emotional instability and stubborn delight in his outsider status gradually take their toll as he alienates everyone he’s worked with. It’s at this point, alas, that the movie also starts to alienate the viewer. Final act, with the main characters brought back for a final meeting with the now drug-addicted Meek, plays like a legit device that doesn’t work in movie terms.
O’Neill, who’s lived the character from its earliest incarnation as a read-through in the mid-’90s, powers the film in its first half and handles the script’s satirical shafts with ease. But at almost two hours, it’s a theatrical perf that needed to be reined in more by helmer Moran. Large supporting cast is aces.
End titles sadly sketch the various demises of the main characters, plus the ironic outcome of a lawsuit over “Telstar” royalties.