Telstar is such an entertaining film that you’re left wondering why ‘we’ don’t make more like it. It’s a true-ish, homegrown story about an evocative recent period, and one that’s directed and performed with real enjoyment and enthusiasm.
Set in the early 1960s, Telstar is all about Joe Meek (Con O’Neill), an independent record producer with an ego the size of a hot-air balloon but without the success required to inflate it – yet. Meek creates his concoctions in a flat above a shop on London’s Holloway Road (number 304, it’s still there, and marked by a plaque). His musical adventures are funded by Major Banks (Kevin Spacey), a rather staid businessman who doesn’t understand Meek’s maverick tendencies but tolerates them.
Through Meek’s doors – well actually Violet Shenton’s doors (Pam Ferris), as she’s the shop owner and his landlady – come a rogue’s gallery of wannabe pop stars and low-budget session players, all of them seen by Meek as the raw materials for musical alchemy.
At the start of the movie Joe is set to begin his rise, and shy-boy lyricist Geoff Goddard (Tom Burke) pops in wanting to be part of it. The two craft generic pop hits together and all seems set for the good times to roll. But from the outset the flamboyantly gay Meek hints at his darker elements: his selfishness, paranoia and fiery gun-happy temper.
Passing through this tragi-comic setting are the great (and not-so-good) of the 60s music scene; session musicians such as drummer Clem Cattini (James Corden), bass payer Chas Hodges (Ralf Little) later of Chas & Dave fame, Screaming Lord Sutch (Justin Hawkins), Gene Vincent (Carl Barât) and rock guitar hero Ritchie Blackmore (Mathew Baynton).
Also there is Heinz Burt (JJ Feild), a chancer with little discernible talent but who Meek falls in love with, and decides to make a star. Their relationship heralds a spiral of personal and professional failure for Joe, and despite his friends’ best efforts sees his demons ready to beset him.
While catchy and sonically inventive tunes litter the soundtrack – Have I The Right, Just Like Eddie, Johnny, Remember Me, and the eponymous Telstar, an instrumental about the world’s first telecommunications satellite and a No.1 hit in the US and UK – the film also portrays the fickle nature of pop celebrity, the music industry’s shady dealing, and for Meek drugs, the ‘shame’ of his homosexuality, and a fascination with the occult.
Meek’s tale is undoubtedly a fascinating one: by turns lurid, frustrating, poetic and sad. It also often happens to be absolutely hilarious, as well as joyous. And so Telstar becomes a wonderful ride, one that’s made all the more engaging by the thrills, pills and bellyaches it provides along the way.