Bob Dylan earned an impressionistic/multiple actor-multiple interpretations of his character portrait in “I’m Not There.”
“Control” was an odd, mesmerizing look at the life of Ian Curtis of Joy Division.
Ian Drury earned an offbeat biopic, “Sex, Drugs & Rock’n Roll.”
“Telstar” is every bit as odd, a film set on the fringe — the story of crazed and gay British record producer Joe Meeks — and given an overwrought, overlong fringe screen treatment by director Nick Moran and writer James Hicks, who wrote the play on which this is based.
Meeks was an early ’60s pioneer in avante garde pop music studio production — coming up with strange effects and odd sounds to make his records stand out in the post-Elvis U.K. pop music crowd. He didn’t read music, but sounds would come to him in his head, he’d hum them onto tape and force — through threats and even at gunpoint — his musicians to make what was in his head a musical reality.
A great believer in the occult, the beyond and things “in the ether,” his most famous hit was the first British pop record to hit number one in the U.S. — the electronic instrumental “Telstar.”
Con O’Neill plays Meeks as a flamboyant madman, obsessed with sound, feuding with his landlady — his makeshift studio was set up over a London leather goods shop — his financial backer (Kevin Spacey playing an impatient, imperious British plastics baron) and his musicians, whom he rarely paid even as he was turning out British pop hits for them – Screaming Lord Sutch and Ritchie Blackmore were among his clients.
The fun bits of the movie come early on — when he works with his collaborator, a songwriter and trained medium who has already channeled a hit from the “dead Buddy Holly” — on creating a song to catch the wave of attention over the first global communications satellite — the Telsar. Geoff Goddard (Tom Burke) is just as mad as Meeks, and their teamwork produced some hits.
Then Meeks got hung up on a would-be singer/probable boyfriend named Heinz. As he struggles to make this love of his life a star, things start to go sideways for him and his little indie record label.
You’ll laugh, or cringe, at Meeks’ refusal to take a call from Brian Epstein about thuis new group, Beatles,” because “This Merseybeat thing, it’s just a fad.” He blows off Tom Jones, and in reality dismissed Rod Stewart and gave up too early on David Bowie as well.
O’Neill, reprising his performance in the stage production, gives Meeks a mania, showing a man who lashed out without thinking — impulsively firing needed collaborators, blowing too much money on the wrong things, mistreating one and all in pursuit of his vision.
JJ Feild makes Heinz Burke a doltish clod who amusingly over-estimates his own talent, so slow-witted that he falls for the same practical jokes over and over and seems even to forget his own sexuality — a controversial element to the film, considering his family takes issue with the story’s gay romance gone wrong at its heart.
As offbeat as these musical bio-pics always are, the arc of the stories is almost always the same, a “Behind the Music” tale of a long, or quick decline. That eats up too much of the film’s maudlin but chilling third act.
The film doesn’t do a brilliant job in getting across how ahead of his time the man was. But O’Neill makes Meeks a tormented, tragic figure in spike of his intense unlikability. It’s good enough to send you to the Internet in search of recordings of “Just Like Eddie” and “Remember Me, Johnny” and “Have I the Right,” if not of Telstar — a clever bit of in-the-moment Muzak that should have made the guy rich and famous.
Cast: Con O’Neill, Kevin Spacey, JJ Feild, Tom Burke, Pam Ferris.
Credits: Directed by Nick Moran, written by Moran and James Hicks, based on the James Hicks play.
Running time: 1:56