(SLADE in) FLAME (1975)
At the height of Slade’s three years of fame as a British glam rock group, with three of their singles hitting number 1 in their first week, their manager ex-Animal’s member Chas Chandler master-minded a plan to make movie stars of the band as part of a planned Beatles-style career trajectory. The band were keen to make a gritty film of a rock band’s fictional story grounded in reality rather than a slapstick film the fans would have expected.
After considering a number of scripts, one of which was a pastiche of THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT called THE QUITE-A-MESS EXPERIMENT, they settled on working with writer Andrew Birkin (whose sister was Jane ‘Je t’aime’ Birkin. His script, like many, tended toward the myths of rock n’ roll – the glamourisation rather than the true picture. The band wanted him to understand the reality of life on the road, so they took him to the USA on their tour. He only lasted two weeks amongst the mayhem, but came back with many stories that Slade had told him about their touring lives and that of other groups – so the resulting script is truthfully about many different bands, not to be confused as an autobiography of Slade. Setting FLAME in the ‘60s also helped in slightly distancing the plot from being confused with Slade’s own history.
The plot is the downbeat cautionary rise and fall of a rock band comprising most of Slade, from their low-rent beginning scratching a living with a singer Jack Daniels (Alan Lake) and a rivalry with the similarly tacky the Undertakers, a Damned-style theatrical horror band led by Noddy Holder. The band ditch Daniels and take on Holder, then are dropped by their manager Harding (Johnny Shannon). When a smooth corporate marketer Seymour takes them on and aims to construct a successful image for them, Flame gradually fall apart, not helped by the re-emergence of Harding trying to cut himself a portion of their new-found profits.
SLADE IN FLAME is a satisfying film. Although it shrewdly features all-new songs at the time such as the atypical ballad ‘How Does It Feel?’ and a couple of concert performances, it’s not a thinly-disguised promo outlet for the band’s music. It works as an admirably unsanitised down and dirty depiction of the back-stabbing and deceit within the music business, a gratifyingly adult movie in many ways, with bad language and some violence to reinforce this, much like the nastier STARDUST released at the same time and the later BREAKING GLASS. (You can’t imagine a group like One Direction daring to present something this daring to their fan-base).
The film was shot in roughly eight weeks and all on location with no studio scenes. Slade’s own experience of filming as completely novice actors affected each member differently and they acquit themselves well. Jim took his part and the trauma he undergoes very seriously. Don, the ‘mad drummer’ was the buffoon in real life but the year before filming had suffered an almost fatal car-crash rendering his senses of taste and smell non-existent and his short-term memory only functioning haphazardly. This meant that mostly he could only be filmed in short one-liners but managed an extended heart-to-heart beach scene well. Dave Hill and Noddy Holder both had enough confidence to handle their roles and emerge as the most convincing actors, Dave feeling on reflection that they should have made a lighter rather than darker movie. Noddy stuck to his belief that it was better to challenge the fans’ expectations. It ‘killed the myth’ of the jolly japesters they were on stage yet earned surprisingly strong critical reception for their performances and desire to reach for something a little more sophisticated. Mark Kermode has since called it the ‘Citizen Kane of rock musicals’.
The profesional cast included Tom Conti, whose first film it was. In the DVD interview Noddy Holder said they got on well with him and that any aloofness he had was perfect for his role. Two others who fitted their parts perhaps too well were Alan Lake and Johnny Shannon as the manager Harding. Lake was a heavy drinker, and although full of tales that made him great company for the band and ideal for his character, he was prone to liquid lunches that rendered him aggressively the worse for wear to the point where he was fired, and it took his wife Diana Dors to persuade the studio to take him back, holding him to an honoured promise that he stay dry for the rest of the shoot. Johnny Shannon, a non-actor who became known for his first gangster role in PERFORMANCE, was hired on the strength of that film and made the most of the menacing relationship with Slade that was true to rough manager dealings the band had experienced. During a confrontation with Holder in one of their scenes, Noddy recalled that he suffered repeated painful hair-grabbings by Shannon without any fakery for the camera for each take. Rather than apologise, the East End tough declared that it would make the scene more authentic.
SLADE IN FLAME made money; although it would perhaps have been more succesful had it pandered more to fans’ pre-conceptions. Knowing that St Louis was a big market for the group in the U.S. they chose to hold the American release there. Such was the difficulty Americans had in understanding their Black Country accents, that the film had to be subtitled. (US fans on tour always mistook them for Australians).
Slade were offered a follow-on film - a Russian spy comedy with the Two Ronnies - but it was never formalised and the band were also concerned about the time another movie’s commitment would take out of their relentless schedule of recording and touring.
SLADE IN FLAME is well worth seeing, both for Slade fans who want to see a different side to the group and for movie-buffs who enjoy rock music behind-the-scenes biopics…