Tuesday, March 14, 2006

I had the most remarkable motion picture viewing experience last night, one in which I went in expecting nothing and came away very pleasantly surprised. It was a film that had no major stars, either from the decade in which it was filmed or any subsequent (unless you are a big Tom Conti fan), a small budget, and came and went (upon its initial release) with very little (if any) fanfare on either side of the Big Pond. As you probably guessed from the pic at right, the stars were the 70's glam-rock band Slade, and it was their 1975 screen debut SLADE IN FLAME. And wonder of wonders, it was a hell of a good movie.

Now, back in 1976, despite the fact that I had read the occasional Creem article about the band, and was heavily digging their greatest-hits LP Sladest and its 1974 successor Clap Your Feet Stomp Your Hands (known as Old New Borrowed Blue in the UK), I was totally unaware that Slade had made a movie. Then I saw the the soundtrack LP, noted that it claimed to be a "soundtrack" of the film of the same name, and assumed that it had been a cheapjack star vehicle that got little release and had quickly faded into obscurity. And for the most part, I was right- I did see the occasional mention of the film here and there, but never saw it on TV, nor did it seem to be available on VHS by the time I began looking for movies in that format. I figured it had shared the fate of Harry Nilsson & Ringo Starr's Son of Dracula, mentioned occasionally but never seen and leaving behind a collection of tunes on vinyl to mark its existence. And by the end of the 80s, despite a brief career popularity spike in the middle fo that decade, Slade itself had pretty much become forgotten and invisible except to all but the most devoted fans, and I pertty much forgot about the flick myself. But fortunately, not everyone shared my selective amnesia, and eventually (2002, I think) Flame came out on DVD, and it occurred to me the other day to see if it was available via Netflix- and once more that most wondrous of online DVD rental services came through.

When the film was conceived in 1974, in the waning days of the Glitter/Glam movement, the boys were at the peak of their popularity, won with such hits as "Cum Feel the Noize" and "Mama Weer All Crazy Now", and it was decided that the next step must be a movie, a la the Beatles before them. Slade kinda had the image of a bunch of rowdy yobboes who tore it up in concert, best represented by singer Noddy Holder's piercing yowling vocals, not as fey as the Bolans and Ferrys- most atypical glamsters indeed. So you'd think that they would seek to make a Help!-style romp, with lots of songs and goofing around, exactly what the kids wanted to see. Well, no. What they did, first time actors and director alike, was defy the odds and expectations and made a serious, downbeat movie about the rise and fall of a bunch of English working-class lads who formed a group and rose to the top of the heap in short order. To keep it from being too biographical, or at least to avoid having that read into it, they contrived to play a group called "Flame", and took anecdotes from a number of fellow musicians to fill out the script.

The story begins as bassist Jim Lea, guitarist Dave Hill, and eventually drummer Don Powell ("Paul", "Barry" and "Charlie", respectively) labor in a covers band with a singer named "Jack Daniels", who looks like an aging Ted and croons Elvis songs with a terrible vibrato. They tend to share gigs and venues with another local band, "The Undertakers", who dress like vampires and zombies, and basically nick Screaming Lord Sutch and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' schtick by having their vocalist "Stoker" (Noddy Holder) singing inside a coffin. One evening, before their performance Barry padlocks the coffin, locking Stoker inside and wrecking the Undertakers' set. As the 'Takers run down Daniels and company in a high speed freeway chase, Daniels totals his car and both bands get taken to jail and break up due to frustration as well as lack of funds and success. Eventually, though, the three Daniels band guys recruit Stoker to sing for them, and form Flame- and at first they're managed by a gangster named Johnny Shannon (who also manages Daniels), much to their chagrin. In their first gig as a group, they play a scorching version, no pun intended, of Slade song "Them Kinda Monkeys Can't Swing", which gets them noticed by a corporate fellow who immediately signs them up for his boss- a marketing whiz who doesn't care anything about rock music- he just knows he can market the band to the top. Seeing their chance to grab the brass ring, they take it and in short order they are headlining, selling tons of records, and living the rockstar life. Eventually two things rear their ugly heads- first, the pressure and the stress of the rockstar life plays havoc among the erstwhile friends, and soon they begin fighting and bickering and threatening to quit, even as their popularity grows. Another problem is the unscrupulous Shannon, who claims to have a signed contract with the group and is determined to get his "fair share", by force if necessary. Not exactly Hard Day's Night, is it?

Here's the thing- this film is solid, very well done. The guys of Slade weren't really actors, but they do a heck of a good job (all things considered) not only in the lighter parts, but the dramatic ones as well. Holder is especially good- his Stoker is a rascal and a smartass, but when the chips are down you can tell he will do the right thing. Lea also acquits himself nicely as well, in a role which calls for him to be intrigued by and driven to achieve success and fame, but who also has a wife and child and finds himself torn between his domestic life and the rockstar life. Powell, who according to Holder in the DVD extra interview had recently been in a car wreck which played hell with his short-term memory, has a nicely done dramatic scene and supplies a steady stream of quips and one-liners to leaven the gloomy nature of the script. All the supporting players are fine as well, especially Ron Harding as Shannon, who plays a real slimeball but not so much that you can't see his side of things, and Conti as the money man who gets a bit more than he bargained for with his proteges. The film was shot on location in England, among those familiar rows of boxy little houses on hillsides and in rundown districts and clubs, and the atmosphere is 100% authentic. And of course, this being a rock band's film, there are plenty of performing scenes and they don't disappoint there either. Musically, Flame was one of the band's more ambitious projects- the theme song, "How Does it Feel", is a pensive ballad with loud horn-driven interludes, perhaps one of the best songs they ever committed to vinyl; the aforementioned "Monkey" performance was riveting, with Holder at his charismatic best; and other album cuts like "Far Far Away" and "So Far So Good" (more typical of Slade's usual pop-rock sound) are nicely showcased. Imagine a B-movie cross between The Commitments, Snatch, and Billy Elliot, and you'll have an idea of the feel of this movie.

One reason why the film lapsed into obscurity is that it was totally confounded the expectations of the Slade faithful, who wanted something lighter and more exciting from their heroes- and all things considered (and from a distance of 30 years on) was probably one of the contributing factors to their fall from commercial grace as Punk arose in 1976, even though they were always the punkiest of the Glam bands- and frankly, to my ears "That Kind of Monkey" is as loud, fast and sloppy as anything the Ramones or Pistols ever did. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and the group did have a brief revival of fortunes a few years later. But ya gotta admire the heck out of them for making a movie like this in the first place.

So here's a recommendation. If any of this sounds interesting, take a flyer on Slade in Flame. It just might make your night, like it did mine.

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