(British) Hidden Gems #1 : Telstar: The Joe Meek Story

telstar

 

What is it to be forgotten? To just fade from memory. Not to vanish, as if a magician’s trick, but to simply be there in an instant, and then as the infinite train of time rattles along, to be left behind. More importantly, what is it to be forgotten when you’re desperately trying to be in the limelight?

This film, in so many ways, asks these questions.Everything, from its actual content to its meta-content, comes to help push these questions to light.

For a little history lesson, Joe Meek was a man I’d never heard of until I saw this film, and history seems to have little time for him either. A music producer in the very early 60s, Joe Meek managed to produce a No. 1 hit, “Telstar” by the Tornadoes, which was the first British song to reach Number 1 in the US Hot 100. He also produced the British hit ‘Johnny Remember Me’ by John Leighton,  a man now forgotten to time, who was a big actor/heart-throb who starred alongside Frank Sinatra. He is also known as one of the men who passed on the Beatles, Rod Stewart, and a then unknown David Bowie. Ultimately, with a court case leaving him unable to procure any of his royalties for Telstar, mounting debts and depression, he shot himself and his landlord in 1967.

However the film is so much more than that, and a for a film about someone popular culture never even elevated, it is one of the most poignant portrayals of the tireless workers behind the surface layer of music. Down here, we can only see the album covers in the shelves or on itunes, we don’t see the backing band, the back-up singers, the producers, the record execs, the studio owners. All the workings from behind the curtain are uplifted and shown to be so damn full of life, that it makes you feel melancholic for the amount of work gone unnoticed, unsung by the countless musicians streaming in and out, completely distant and not cared for by the general public and their obsession with pigeonholing bands into their front-mans and their names.

(WARNING: Skip this part if you have no interest in British culture, or just don’t want to read it.)

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The film and the story itself are a veritable treasure trove of Britain and its culture. Let’s start with the characters, and their acting counterparts who help to illustrate my point:

-Joe Meek (Con O’ Neil), a genuine pioneer in musical history, whose torch is carried still by the older generation of musical fanatics.

-Major Wilfred Banks (Kevin Spacey) – Meek’s partner in the record company. Went on to make the first artificial Christmas trees. Mr. Spacey of course, is a veritable phenomenon at this point, achieving the kind of super level where money is so redundant that he can genuinely pursue whatever he wants. And it shows, because he’s the only really high profile name in a film that would fly by the radar of most people, let alone most A-list celebrities and their agents.

-Clem Clattini (James Corden) – A session drummer who has appeared on more No. 1 songs than anyone. As for James Corden, a man who I didn’t like until I’d seen this, he’s a British jewel at this point, famous for the BBC show Gavin and Stacey and for his frolicking and karaoke with stars.

-Chas Hodges (Ralf Little) – Chas is one part of good ol’ Britain in his duo, Chas and Dave. Famous for being absolutely British to the fucking core, these guys are not the British Legends of the 60s, but they are truly British legends. Ralf Little, is an actor I love who starred in the grotty cult BBC show, Two Pints of Lager and A Packet of Crisps. Possibly the most English thing ever committed to screen right here.

-Ritchie Blackmore (Matthew Baynton) – Ritchie Blackmore, a name that doesn’t resonate immediately, was one of the founding members of legendary rock group Deep Purple. Matthew Baynton, was one of the stars of beloved children’s show also for adults based on classic British book institution, Horrible Histories.

-Billy Kuy (Shaun Evans) – not a famous name, but his actor plays a young Inspector Morse in ITV’s Endeavour.

-Billy Fury (Jon Lee) – A largely successful singer during this time. His actor was part of S Club 7, a pop group beloved in my childhood of the noughties.

-Jess Conrad (Nigel Harman) – A lesser known star, in the same vein as Billy Fury. Nigel Harman was a long running star of the never-ending British soap Eastenders, about Cockney’s in East London. Also a runner for the most English thing ever committed to screen.

-Mitch Mitchell (Craig Vye) – Mitch Mitchell, a week after the life-threatening audition shown in the film, shortly went on to be the percussion part of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. You know, Jimi fucking Hendrix.

And finally, the footnotes. Jimmy Carr and Marcus Brigstocke, both famous British comedians appear, alongside George Bellamy, a session musician featured in the film who is the father of the frontman of Muse, Matthew Bellamy. Also the guy who calls Will in The Inbetweeners a “BRIEFCASE WANKER” is in it.

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So good for them. This may be one of the most culturally British films ever to have been made, but that doesn’t make it good or bad. Thank god then, that its good. It’s actually incredible, brimming with raw power and emotion from an absolutely monolithic performance by the lead.

Because what is it to think you’re right until you’re wrong? To shout into the ether and expect it to shout back at you? One part comedy two parts tragedy bursting forth (another classic British sign, thank you Shakespeare), Joe is a pioneer, and by being so, has no one around to compare himself to. For a single moment he walks onto the cutting edge, manages to capture and enrapture those artistic spirits into something successful. And the world, or at least the music charts, listen. And when you look around, walking that edge, and can’t see anyone else around you, well it either catapults you into echelons unknown or absolutely rips you apart. And for Joe, it was the latter.

Joe is crushed and ultimately doomed by his success, along with a helping dose of paranoia, depression and being a homosexual at a time when it was illegal, immoral and possibly life-ruining. Joe’ manic and desperate need to create becomes tainted, and the people who once stuck by him continue to disappear, while Joe pushes the others away.

Because at the end of the day, Joe was an artistic gambler. That’s what pioneers do. They forge forward, but not always in the right direction. He pushed forward, opening doors and closing others, closing doors which went on to be severely popular. He gambles on the wrong horse, and throughout history, we forget those gamblers. Joe isn’t a poor music producer, at least in spirit, he knows what he’s doing. But he hedged his bets on a horse which didn’t win. But unlike horse racing, whose outcome is determined, happily or grimly by the fastest horse, music is far more nebulous. What is the reason people didn’t like Joe’s music? Well they were listening to something else, something different. How can you tell what people are going to listen to next? You can’t, so you try and replicate what is already there. It’s what Joe does with his acts, who replicate those dream boys of Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochrin. But that never lasts for long, and so you gotta keep moving forward. But moving forward can also mean abandoning what you love or think is the right way. So what it ends up as is hundreds of producers, all trying to find something different. That’s the easy bit. The hard bit is making different popular.

The film suffers from these same problems. It’s different, its radical, it’s not perfect, and it didn’t find an audience it needed or deserved. It will probably be consigned to the vaults of obscure British cinema, and its a damn shame. Not because its poorly made, or its parts are weak. The script is electric, if faltering a little towards the end, the acting is excellent, the cinematography is overstuffed with excellent uses of both the physical space in the film and the frame of cinema itself. It’s different to so many films, so many blander music biopics, and the film itself shines with life, same as Joe Meek. It’s just not the right kind of different at the right time for people to seemingly care.

There’s an excellent video game critic, who runs a series called Errant Signal who talked about the ethos that runs through artistic thought, “That if you build it, they will come.” but as he elaborates “Sunset [game in question] shows that if you build it, they might not come.” Telstar: The Joe Meek Story is a brilliant, ragged and jagged piece of cinema. And it will be lost. No one will even count this among a movement, like the New British Wave So here’s me celebrating this hidden gem.

I leave you with the best thing Britain ever produced.  Thanks Chas and Dave.

-Alex

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(British) Hidden Gems #1 : Telstar: The Joe Meek Story