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Telstar review

What goes up, must come down. That truism lies behind writer/director Nick Moran’s theatre-to-film riff on Joe Meek, the crackpot pop-pioneer-cum-producer who piloted The Tornados’ space-age ‘Telstar’ to No 1 in 1962, only for bad luck, worse judgement and homophobia – he was gay when it was criminal – to snip his Icarus-esque wings.

Old onions? Sure, but Moran’s funny, frisky and finally grim film still engages. It plots British pop history in process, watching slack-jawed as innovation emerges, against the odds, from kitchen-sink-style chaos.

It’s a quip-firing comedy of innocents playing at pop stars. It’s a backstage tragedy of drugs, desire, paranoia and prejudice. It’s messy, too, but Moran and his cast – including an understated Kevin Spacey and an on-form James Corden – hold the tune amid tangles of action, for a while at least.

As on stage, Con O’Neill gets deep inside Meek’s mix of sarcasm and psychological turmoil. At Meek’s makeshift Holloway Road studio-cum-flat, musicians record in cupboards and bathrooms while he channels the spirit of Buddy Holly and man-handles equipment.

The hits come but as surely as Meek lives in a mess, he’s a mess himself. A pill-gobbling bully, a bad businessman and somewhat loin-driven to boot, he alienates all-comers and haemorrhages cash on Heinz, a gormless wannabe played to preening-pillock perfection by JJ Feild. For a pop producer, Meek’s taste sure stank. The Beatles? “They’re rubbish!” he cries.

Moran clearly delineates Meek’s missteps and misfortunes, but he isn’t so sure on digging beneath his skin. Flash-forwards play like half-baked stabs at making the play feel cinematic. Instead, they force a sense of fatalism that mutes dramatic tension, making the finale and its slight revelations feel depressing rather than tragic. But O’Neill’s both-barrels performance at least implies psychological depths.

Against its own odds, Meek’s wayward tale remains worth tuning into.

Clumsily plotted and psychologically messy as it is, Moran’s pop biopic is a ripe bustle of business, given substance and conviction by well-rooted performances.

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