Friday, January 7, 2011

Rock on Film Part 9: Telstar

This one almost didn't make this category. Here as I listen to a bootleg of the Beatles rooftop concert I'm thinking that this story is better served by its biographical nature than its cousinship to rock music history but the more I recall the film the more I think it deserves its place here in the pantheon o' roll.

Why the dithering? Because this is not an attempt at telling the story of a rock star, real or not, but a record producer. Not just any record producer, either, but a pioneer whose inventions and techniques aren't just legendary they are in current use.

Joe Meek contributed advances in microphone techniques, the technology of compression, re-editing takes and so much else to what we hear on the radio now and take for granted. Like the phab Brian Eno who came after him he considered the recording studio to be an instrument in itself. Possibly no one in his time added more to the palette of pop than Joe Meek. Who knows his name? Well, I bet you know the song that after all of the above sticks to him like one hit to a wonder: Telstar.

This film commits that very sin that would constitute a perfectly formed no-no in conversation with Meek if Meek, in fact, were still alive. Sin or not, the choice of the unrepresentative claim to fame in the title serves the patient viewer who will understand its irony as the end credits roll.

So how do you make a film about a bloke in a suit behind a console rather than the music and makers of his hits who acted like so many Jacks the lad? You do both. Antics for the needy of rock 'n' roll japery and a comedy of chaos when the camera turns its restless eye to Meek himself. And then there is the inevitable convergence. There's a slight problem here, for me.

In Tom DiCillo's very funny film Living in Oblivion (utterly recommended, btw) there's a moment which I have to forgive rather than run with. The film is a sustained dig at the processes of making an independent film. The cameraman is shooting a scene but getting distracted by another character. So much so that during a home made tracking shot he suddenly swings the camera so it hits the forehead of the nuisance ... and goes on shooting the scene. Sorry, can't do it. It'd be "CUT!" and start again on a film set that couldn't afford to be so cavalier about multiple takes. I'm perfectly well aware it's a joke and in the context of the scene it works, it's well timed and executed. It also completely undercuts the entire premise of the film. We know the director should know better. We know he's gone for the laugh.

Telstar is brimming with such moments but they bother me a lot less. There is a separation of gloomy British realism and the kind of glitzy showbiz of the stars who sparkled like rhinestones under the stage lights but had to knuckle down in the studio. The film has the glitter of the stage invade the studio. Let's note something important here: Joe Meek's studio isn't Abbey Road. It's the top two floors of a squeaking floored flat above a handbag shop in an unfashionable part of London.

The faith-creating results come from a guarded Babel of wires and cramped mouldy rooms. The lame suits in this environment as well as the sudden cavernous reverb on one guest singer's vocal while standing among the band, are meant to be the collision of image and reality. That comes out of there? You bet it does. We're just going to save a little screen time by shoving the two together. What do you get? Well, both at once. It's wrong but it knows it and knows you don't care that much.

Haven't said a word about Joe yet. He was a restless inventor, innovator and practitioner of the new which you get from the disastrously failed boyhood experiment the film opens with. Joe is a hands on guy, taking on management of his acts as well as nurturing their sound (a campy silent film version of an exploratory early tv music video packs these into one moment and it's not as bad as it might have been). Hands on? really Mrs, Slocombe. Ok, now we're there. Joe was gay. In the parlance of the time he was a screaming queen. Scenes that depict this are the same kind of fantasy within grim reality that we've already had in the recording sessions. So far so good.

The central performance by Con O'Neill is streamed from his successful and feted stage performance and, while the film keeps the wolf of theatricality far hence there is a near constant sense that he is caught in a canvas that is getting busier with every stroke. Is he a genius aesthetic engineer, a tormented homosexual in hostile territory, a besieged artist whose every idea is stalked by a pack of mediocrities, a nurturing stage uncle taking his awkward young charges from one clunking overreach to the next, did he dance with the Devil, were those seances and pentagrams for real? All and more, according to this account. The problem is that successive scenes play like chaotic tableaux vivant with a lot of laff moments and rough British dryness (there's a lot of the "not bloody likely" in these) which are meant to highlight the difficulty of Meek's character and predicament in his professional context but really only serve to pass the time until the next calmer revealing scene turns up. It's as though the film is trying too hard to tell us it's not a play anymore but a real film: "can't do THIS onstage, matey".

But Telstar does work in those quieter moments. The framing scenes of Meek in a room illuminated only by the streetlight steadily burning the evidence of his life and career act as a kind of touchstone to what the original concept might have been in the idea of bringing his story to the screen. It looks unintentional, but the contrast between these moments and others of more sensitive nature and the big goopy, larky ones ("oh, we were such loons back then") creates a weird kind of dignity which, after all the silliness, after Kevin Spacey's 'orrible attempt at British uppercrust, after the eye rolling references to big history writ small ... and all, a weird kind of dignity which yet prevails.

I was waiting to see The Boat That Rocked so I could contrast it with this film but I still can't bring myself to watch it. I will say that, as much as I admire Oliver Stone's more serious work which often involves the fictionalisation of history and/or biography, he hasn't quite close to the order out of chaos that this film achieves. The achievement is a near miss but it is an achievement. Who's to say that's wrong? Not Joe Meek.

Oh, this is one case of a film set in the 60s which is allowed to sound like 90s minutes of Gold FM. And it's good, that there music. Check it.

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