Film Review: A Life in the Death of Joe Meek [Howard S. Berger and Susan Stahman, 2014]


A few minutes into A Life in the Death of Joe Meek, a new feature-length documentary about legendary British producer and sonic innovator Joe Meek from American producers/directors Howard S. Berger and Susan Stahman (its title a reference to the 1960s play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg), Keith Strickland of the B-52s compares Meek to Brian Eno and Kraftwerk. While the comparison may seem far-fetched at first, the numbers (Meek produced more than 250 singles between 1960 and 1967, including the first Billboard no. 1 by a British group, the Tornados’ “Telstar”) are simply staggering, and the influence of his pioneering use of overdubs, echo and—more generally—the studio as a musical instrument in itself can be heard in countless recordings by everyone from Wreckless Eric to Mr. Bungle to Atlas Sound. This year, the NME even named Joe Meek the greatest producer ever, topping a list that included such notables as Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, Rick Rubin, Dr. Dre and George Martin—a testament to the importance of his legacy. To put it mildly, and although he made his share of poor musical judgments (including advising Brian Epstein not to sign the Beatles, passing on David Bowie, and convincing the Moontrekkers to get rid of their teenage singer, one Roderick Stewart), Joe Meek was—and his accomplishments remain—a big deal.

If all Meek had ever done was to engineer and produce dozens of groundbreaking hit singles and revolutionize the way music was recorded in Britain, that alone would surely provide enough fodder for a fascinating music documentary. That his life was also marked by several professional falling-outs, paranoia, a fascination with the occult, stories of tantrums and the challenges of being a homosexual man in Britain at a time when that was enough to get arrested means that there is plenty of material for a film twice as long as A Life in the Death of Joe Meek. 

What there is precious little of is footage of Joe Meek at work in the studio or being interviewed. Berger and Stahman overcome this problem by drawing on several interviews with industry insiders, biographers, family members, Meek enthusiasts, and a lengthy list of musicians (including the aforementioned Strickland, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Yes’s Steve Howe, Edwyn Collins, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and members of groups who recorded with Meek such as the Tornados, the Honeycombs and the Cryan’ Shames). While this means that A Life in the Death of Joe Meek has to rely largely on a collection of talking heads to tell Meek’s story, it nevertheless manages to cover all the bases, from his solitary youth in Newent as an electronics prodigy (he is said to have assembled the region’s first working television in his parents’ shed) to his first experiments with sound mixing as an engineer for the International Broadcasting Company, to his untimely death in the still-mysterious murder-suicide of his landlord at the age of 34. The meat of the documentary is devoted to Meek’s years at 304 Holloway Road (“It didn’t look like Abbey Road. It looked like your grandfather’s garden shed, you know, where your grandfather was experimenting”, says David John of David John and the Mood), but Berger and Stahman also find time to examine Meek’s struggles with the stodgy British music industry as an independent—and innovative—record producer, his obsession with Buddy Holly and his perceived rivalry with Spector, whom he believed was stealing all his ideas.

Where A Life in the Death of Joe Meek falters the slightest—perhaps out of necessity to keep the film’s running time under two hours—is in presenting the more technical aspects of Meek’s recordings. The producer’s sexuality and relationship with bassist Heinz Burt of the Tornados are discussed in lengthy and often uncomfortable segments (some suggest that Burt was gay “for money”), but those looking for a Classic Albums-style breakdown of the recording techniques used on Meek’s biggest hits for the most part will not find it here, though discussions of his work on the late Humphrey Littleton’s only hit, a jazz instrumental by the title of “Bad Penny Blues” (which Page calls “phenomenal”), and I Hear A New World, a concept LP only released in full long after his death, are both illuminating.

Ultimately, A Life in the Death of Joe Meek aims to paint a complete picture of Joe Meek as a studio genius, a gifted and inventive recording pioneer, as well as a flawed human being—and in that respect it is a resounding success. Those already familiar with Meek’s work will find in this documentary a detailed oral history of a fascinating period in British music that is too often overshadowed by the emergence of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. For everyone else, A Life in the Death of Joe Meek will serve as the perfect introduction to one of popular music’s most idiosyncratic character—and one of its most unique back catalogues.

Posted on by Thierry Cote in Everything, Movies, Reviews