Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life / Telstar: The Joe Meek Story

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life follows the controversial French singer and songwriter starting in childhood, where his big ears and Jewish genes don’t make for an easy upbringing in Nazi-occupied Paris. The kid hates piano lessons, preferring drawing sophisticated cartoons (some dirty) to music, unless the song is a ditty about cocaine.

Those quirks work for the adult Serge (a note-perfect Eric Elmosnino), who begins breaking hearts, treats his room in an artists’ residence like a bordello, and shakes up the music world, most notably via the scandalous pop song “Je t’aime … moi non plus,” which featured his longtime lover, Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon, Spider-Man 3), feigning orgasm.

Before that, Gainsbourg romped on the radio and in the bedroom with actress Brigitte Bardot (model Laetitia Casta). We see them collaborating on “Bonnie and Clyde” and much more memorably on “Comic Strip,” in which a nude Casta dances about the piano wearing only a sheet.

What makes debuting writer/director Joann Sfar’s film stand above the average music biopic is his use of fantasy images. Starting from childhood, Gainsbourg is often accompanied by an oversized, grossly exaggerated living caricature of himself — an equivalent to cartoons’ devil on the shoulder. The animated credits continue this whimsy, linking directly to Sfar’s graphic novel on which he based his film.

focuses on a man as gifted and conflicted as Gainsbourg was, but harboring even deeper demons. Only a cult figure in America, the London-born Joe Meek is best-known for birthing “Telstar,” The Tornados’ space race-influenced instrumental that became Britain’s first No. 1 hit on the U.S. charts, in 1962. Meek just woke up in the middle of the night humming it. Even if you don’t know the tune by name, you know it by sound.

What you don’t know is the tragic tale of its writer/producer, and sex and drugs don’t even begin to scratch the surface of his troubles, although they’re certainly gateways to them. Meek (Con O’Neill, The Last Seduction II) is first shown as a temperamental figure and creative curser, but success left his life almost as quickly as it arrived. It didn’t help that his tastes weren’t exactly in line with the mainstream; he shepherded the likes of shock rocker Screaming Lord Sutch, while tossing reels of some band called The Beatles into the trash.

O’Neill is solid as Meek, but the feature directing debut of actor Nick Moran (Scabior in the pair of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows films) cannot live up to that performance, nor that of co-star Kevin Spacey (Horrible Bosses) as Meek’s financial backer. Moran’s script is mechanical, dreary and overlong at two hours (whereas Gainsbourg’s equal running time is well-used). Plus, it’s laid out in such a way that anyone without knowledge of Meek’s story — which is nearly everyone — won’t “get” the big deal, or what they’re even watching.

Like its subject, the movie is surprisingly tone-deaf. It makes no effort to introduce its subject properly, taking too much for granted. That is a shame, because if there’s anyone who deserved a whacked-out, iconoclastic treatment, it’s the whacked-out iconoclast known as Joe Meek. —Rod Lott

Rod Lott

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