It’s a strength of Nick Moran’s biopic that, unlike practically every other film about the entertainment industry in the 1960s, it doesn’t make any great social claims for the music or life of Joe Meek – who was so wrapped up in his own (rented) world in the Holloway Road turning out weird hit parade masterpieces, he barely noticed the ‘60s happening. A running joke has Meek (Con O’Neill) turning down chances to work with the Beatles, Tom Jones and others, not noticing The Rolling Stones at the bottom of a bill or sulking when putupon drummer Clem Cattini (James Corden) walks out to work with the Kinks. Always, his focus was on the pop charts rather than changing society – and he was old-fashioned enough to be mortified after his arrest (for public indecency in a public toilet) about what his Mum would think seeing his name in the papers. Meek’s brief moment of success comes with ‘Telstar’, a science-fiction-inflected zeitgeist hit which is as much as anything else a novelty record, and the highlights of his catalogue are weird, macabre exercises in the ‘death song’ sub-genre (‘Johnny, Remember Me’, ‘Just Like Eddie’) with teen idol crooners haunted by ululated refrains and even the outrageous proto-goth comedy horror antics of Screaming Lord Sutch (the missing link between Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Zacherle and Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson). The film even toys with the notion of Meek as a vampire, not only in his tendency to suck dry his collaborators but as he shrivels in the sunlight let in when bailiffs pry the sound-baffling boards off the windows of his flat/studio.
O’Neill, who originated the role on stage, is outstanding, with a pitch-perfect Gloucester accent and enormous drive, managing many mercurial shifts from manic enthusiasm to bitter venom, throwing tantrums which drive away all his valuable collaborators – including spiritualist songwriter Geoff Goddard (Tom Burke) and pukka businessman Major Banks (Kevin Spacey) — and lead to a final meltdown in which he semi-accidentally shoots his landlady (Pam Ferris) and more deliberately himself. Part of Meek’s dilemma was that pop music is inevitably all about the performer as creator, and he was among the first to realise that a creative record producer not only didn’t need a big personality singer but would find actual talent in a performer a hindrance to his own aural vision – the film is funny about his work with actor John Leyton (Callum Dixon), groomed as a pop star via a song where an anonymous girl backing singer carries the refrain, and funny-tragic about his stab at building up peroxided narcissist Heinz (JJ Feild) as his Trilby through a short-term love affair and a ruinously expensive campaign to make an obvious twit the biggest star in Britain — which mainly serves to tick off the real musicians in the stable and turn Heinz into a laughing-stock.
Moran has no truck with recent conspiracy theories about Meek’s death, aside from a brief mention of the Kray Brothers, and goes with the generally-accepted story of manslaughter/suicide. Considering that Meek’s only real peer in the ‘60s was Phil Spector, there’s now the strange legend – suitable for one of Meek’s own Fontana Book of Ghost Stories in vinyl hits – that mad genius record producers will inevitably wind up shooting someone. Incidentally, like Vera Drake, this features a scene set in Islington Police Station, which would later become the building where I live – Joe Meek joins the celeb roster, including Vivian Stanshall and Joe Orton, to have been arrested and booked here.