At the Cinema | Telstar – Strange but true: the story of pop maverick Joe Meek

Telstar - Con O’Neill’s Joe Meek (far right) and his musical protégés hit gold

The story of pop music maverick Joe Meek is so bizarre you couldn’t make it up – though Joe Orton might have tried. Making his directorial debut with Telstar, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels actor Nick Moran sticks closely to the outlandish facts, showing how Meek created a series of revolutionary pop records in the late 1950s and early 60s from a jerry-rigged studio in a flat above a handbag shop on London’s Holloway Road.

From these unlikely surroundings, Meek produced a string of multi-million-selling hits, including the eponymous Telstar, the Tornados’ instrumental named after the first communications satellite and the first record by a British act to top the US charts. In the process, his instinctive, seat-of-the-pants electronic techniques revolutionised studio recording – despite the fact that he couldn’t play an instrument or hold a tune.

Telstar - Con O’Neil plays pop maverick Joe Meek

But Meek’s rashness, paranoia, poor business sense (he turned down the Beatles four times) and messy gay love life saw him descend into self-destructive depression and on 3 February 1967 he killed his landlady with a shotgun before turning the gun on himself, dying eight years to the day after his idol, Buddy Holly.

Moran’s film, based on his own stage play, starts off brightly with scenes of camp comedy that vividly recreate the rickety amateurishness of early British pop. Yet as the action flashes backwards and forwards while building towards Meek’s tragic end, the tone veers wildly, going from the gor-blimey cockney banter exchanged between familiar TV faces James Corden (as drummer Clem Cattini) and Ralf Little (as guitarist Chas Hodges, later one half of Chas & Dave) to the increasingly deranged ranting of Con O’Neill’s tormented Meek (the role he played on stage). Kevin Spacey, who turns up in a ginger toupee as Meek’s unlikely business partner, Major Banks, plays things straight, though, and comes out of the film unscathed.

General release from 19 June.


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