Kate Bradley shares her thoughts on what makes the perfect film soundtrack through looking at the Joe Meek biopic Telestar
Most film soundtracks are decidedly mediocre: they either make use of popular tracks with little longevity to draw a mainstream audience, or they get a score-writer to throw together a generic piece of classical music. This banality allows for the well-soundtracked films to rise to the top: remember Fight Club’s final scene, Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’ playing as skyscrapers topple? ‘Lust for Life’ opening Trainspotting? Or Uma Thurman dancing to ‘You’ll Be A Woman Soon’ before she nearly dies in Pulp Fiction? Telstar, the biopic of a 50s record producer Joe Meek, has a less well-known but just as brilliant soundtrack.
Joe Meek was a remarkable man. He made all his records in the flats above a London shop, and even with limited space and resources, managed to produce the first British record to reach number one in the USA. He was a trailblazer, inventing techniques for recording never even considered before. He produced some of the biggest names in the ‘50s, including the likes of Johnny Leyton, The Tornados and Heinz.
‘50s rock’n’roll may not be the most fashionable these days (except on the dance floor at Itchy Feet), but when it was, Meek was a household name. Joe Meek was also gay at a time when it could have ruined his life, and he grew increasingly mentally unstable as his life progressed, ending it himself at the age of 37. Telstar captures his decline perfectly, and it wouldn’t be able to do it without its soundtrack.
Of course, the soundtrack partially writes itself; Meek’s hits by The Tornados, Heinz and John Leyton provide perfect accompaniment for his rise to fame as they help to plunge the viewer into the Meek’s mental space at its most creative and productive.
Oddly, though, they’re just as good at soundtracking Meek’s mentally disturbed later years – the contrast between the upbeat rockabilly of Gene Vincent and Meek’s disordered behaviour treads the border territory between illness and health. What was exceptional about Meek, of course, was the way that his mental illness could have actually improved his production.
If Telstar is to be believed (and some say it’s not, but that doesn’t make the concept any less enthralling), Meek’s obsession with séances and the black arts was his inspiration for haunting tracks like ‘Telstar’ itself, his American number one. When Meek stumbles into his studio in a delusion-induced fit of genius, the perfect combination of disquiet and anticipation in the music can leave viewers understanding both the wonder and the horror of Meek’s life.
These days, big-budget soundtracks are often overblown – instead of subtlety, they go for full-on emotional manipulation in every scene, sometimes making the viewing process a lot less engaging. I think Telstar gets it spot on. Telstar wasn’t a box office smash, despite its fairly well-known cast, but it tells a completely unique story, and uses an exceptional set of tracks, first to reinforce and then to undermine the image of a ‘prim-and-proper’ pre-’60s Britain.