Slade in Flame (1975)
“In the cut throat world of the music business you’re either a success or dead.”
Cast: Don Powell, Jim Lea, Noddy Holder
Synopsis: Light the Rock n’ Roll spark with a Flame in the guise of Dave, Noddy, Jim and Don and their showcase of the rise and demise of rock band Flame.
Back in the early 1970s, Slade were just about the biggest band in the UK and, as with most pop groups who enjoy extreme popularity for any period, it was only a matter of time before they decided to exploit their popularity by making a movie. It’s ironic then, that their effort, unlike most of those of their peers, was actually reasonably good, and yet signalled the last hurrah of their halcyon years. An ill-fated attempt to crack the American market around the same time that they made Flame resulted in them being out of the British public’s eye for long enough for their popularity to fade. The soundtrack from the movie spawned a couple of hit singles — both of which ironically rank amongst their best work — but straight-to-number-one hits were no longer a certainty, and the rise of punk heralded the end of Slade’s tenure at the top of the British music industry.
Flame, in which Slade’s members play the members of the eponymous band, plays like a combination of a Beatles movie and the more jaded and realistic likes of That’ll Be the Day. The story, which traces the band’s rise and fall, is a familiar one but it’s lent an authenticity lacking in many similar tales thanks largely to the band’s decision to allow writers Andrew Birkin and Dave Humphries to accompany them on their US tour. All the incidents described in the film are apparently based on real-life incidents.
Flame works hard to establish its subject band’s working class roots, portraying its four protagonists as fish out of water, manipulated and exploited by both upper class agents — in the guise of Robert Seymour (Tom Conti, making his big-screen debut), and his henchman, Tony Devlin, played by Kenneth Colley — and a spiv-like chancer played with a caustic sharpness by Johnny Shannon. The boys form their band out of the remnants of two rival bands, kicking out lead singer Jack Daniels (Alan Lake) in the process. Their shyster manager Ron Harding (Shannon) dumps them, only for Seymour to take them under his wing. Seymour is suave and self-assured but, to the film’s credit, he is never portrayed as a villain, even though his interest in the band is purely centred around how much money he can make out of them. ‘Let’s put it this way,’ he candidly reveals when one of the band members asks him whether he likes their music. ‘I don’t smoke, but I sell an awful lot of cigarettes’. It’s attention to detail like this which elevates Flame above other music business movies.
Although it’s a superior movie of its kind, Flame isn’t without substantial flaws, chief of which is the fact that, were they not members of a best-selling band, most of the members of Slade wouldn’t have a hope in hell of making a living out of acting. Only Noddy Holder shows any kind of confidence or screen presence. To director Richard Loncraine’s credit, he does at least try to limit the other band member’s lines, focusing instead on the behind-the-scenes rivalry between Seymour and Harding which begins to resemble a crime thriller more than a pop music movie, particularly when Harding’s heavies catch up with a back-stabbing Daniels. But by trying to limit the damage caused by the band’s lack of acting ability, Loncraine is forced to dispense with strategically necessary scenes so that the main storyline of the band’s rise and fall sometimes feels as if it has been tacked on to pad out the film’s running time. Nevertheless, Flame remains an under-appreciated movie which, because of the quality of its writing (Birkin would go on to write The Name of the Rose and The Cement Garden amongst others) has perhaps been unfairly bracketed into an inappropriate and critically dismissed sub-genre.
(Reviewed 28th December 2012)