SIFF Review: Telstar

A British record producer you've never heard of! A West End play you've never seen! The American equivalent would be The Phil Spector Story--and we can probably expect that soon. Did we mention this biopic about '60s musical footnote Joe Meek includes Kevin Spacey? But he's cast in a supporting role as the partner to Meek (Con O'Neill), a tone-deaf gay recording engineer who co-wrote or helped produce pre-Beatles hits including "Telstar" and "Have I the Right"--none of which we Americans should feel guilty for not knowing. They belong to the early-'60s reign of the novelty song, which followed Lonnie Donegan and the skiffle craze and preceded--well, everything that matters in British pop music. Telstar isn't a musical, though it presents most of Meek's hits either in progress--in his upstairs-downstairs rowhouse recording studio--or in montages from clubs and tours. His house band, usually known as the Tornadoes, must suffer the amphetamine-popping Meek's generally comic tirades, while he reserves his adoration for lover/would-be pop prince Heinz (J.J. Feild), whom the Tornadoes correctly judge to have no musical talent whatsoever. (For one show, Heinz and the Saints are billed above the Rolling Stones!) While the movie's look and performances are spot-on, Telstar crams in too much information from its stage origins and Britpop music history, becoming ever more frantic, compressed, and montage-dependent as Meek's eccentricities turn dark. Arrested for soliciting, subject to an interminable court battle over "Telstar" royalties, desperate for the next big hit, Meek is treated like a tragic figure, a gay martyr even. Yet his undoing seems his own--this is the guy who tosses a Beatles demo tape in the trash, pronouncing, "They're rubbish." The movie works hard, too hard, to present Meek like some misunderstood, forgotten genius--a Joe Orton of pop. But Orton's plays are still produced, while Meek's music today barely registers as kitsch.

Telstar Egyptian, 7 p.m. Sun., June 14.

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