Back in 1961, songwriter Geoff Goddard (Tom Burke) entered the leather goods shop on London's Holloway Road and his life changed, if not forever, then for a few years. He was there to introduce himself to up and coming record producer Joe Meek (Con O'Neill), a notorious eccentric who Geoff believed he would get on with famously as they were both deeply involved with spiritualism. Meek having claimed to have predicted the exact date of the early death of his idol Buddy Holly, and this was often his inspiration as his makeshift studio running through several rooms of the upstairs flat over the shop would be where he created pop magic...
Telstar started life as an acclaimed play by James Hicks and director Nick Moran who took it upon himself as a labour of love to bring that play from the stage to the screen. If there's a sense that he only brought it halfway, and the story would be more comfortable on television, it's not through want of trying to open the drama up cinematically with flashy editing, a nice feel for the era, and a cast of well known faces. Of course, those faces, Kevin Spacey apart, were better known from off the telly, but it's to their credit that nobody looked out of place in this, probably because it all felt as if it were played out on such a claustrophobic scale.
Moran uses that closed in mood to his advantage, as Meek's studio degenerated from a palace of bright, infectious British pop, among the most distinctive of its time, into a virtual prison for him as the royalties were not paid through legal difficulties and his associates deserted him, or more likely he forced them away with his obnoxious behaviour. Still, as well as showing us what an unpleasant individual he could be the film draws out the essential tragedy of a talented man who could not move with fashion, so entrenched in his misery and fading glories that his story becomes poignant. Here it is taken for granted that we, the audience, are well aware of how Meek ended up.
Not least because there are occasional flashforwards to Meek burning his mementos in the run up to the terrible events that occured in February of 1967. Before that, you couldn't tell this tale without a few laughs as Meek was in many ways a ridiculous figure as anyone who has heard his original demo of his most famous hit, Telstar, will tell you it's a hilarious listen, with Meek la-la-ing tone deaf into the microphone. But there's something oddly touching about that recording too, recreated in this film, which sums up a man who had the stars within his reach but was his own worst enemy when it came to staying amongst them. That cast might bring out the bitterness of the situation, but it's not without warmth.
Which only makes it all the more sad to watch Meek, in a masterful performance from O'Neill carried over from the stage, allow himself to give in to his demons and paranoia. We might not see him record a cat in a graveyard which he thought was speaking to him (that recording reveals the moggy to be saying, erm, "Miaow"), but we do see fictionalised versions of some of the most notorious passages of his life. Yes, he chucks away a demo tape belonging to the Beatles, he grooms Heinz (JJ Feild) as the next Billy Fury and, he hopes, the British Elvis Presley, all to little avail, and he gets arrested for improper conduct as he was a homosexual at the time such activity was illegal in Britain; he even conducts seances and black magic rituals to add a dash of supernatural colour to the production. Not that the film ever buys into his idiosyncrasies, and leaves him regarded as one would a strange little organism under the microscope of the present, yet Moran did manage to get the measure of the man, in spite of quibbles about accuracy. Music by Ilan Eshkeri.