DVD review

Dark Side Of The Loons

Football terrace choruses, phonetically spelt song titles, top hats with mirrors, half-mast trousers, bad haircuts, bugger-grips and Superyobs. It was said that glam "cheered up the '70s" and none seemed cheerier than Slade, the former Black Country bower-boys who, by late 1974, had become the genre's most successful exponents. With 12 consecutive Top Five hits and six No 1s to their name (a statistic that knocked Sweet, Bowie and even T. Rex into the shade) Slade seemed invincible. Until, that is, they decided to make their first and only feature film.

Released in 1975, Flame wasn't, as anticipated, a light-hearted glamorama choc-a-bloc with glitter boots, big hits and slapstick capers (even though it was initially suggested they commit to a Quatermass sci-fi spoof entitled The Quite-A-Mess Experiment). Instead, the band first took debut director Richard Loncraine and writer Andrew Birkin (who would go on to make Brimstone And Treacle and The Cement Garden, respectively) on the road in America to show them the harsh, dismal, sexless and drugless truth behind the rock'n'roll cliché.

The result was the non-sensationalist and disturbingly grim morality tale of Flame, an aspiring working-class band whose dream of success is torn apart by crooks, managerial sharks and wheeler-dealers. It was closer to the disheartening social realism of Ken Loach's Kes, say, than The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night or Help!. Critics were impressed but the fans were confused—so much so that it's perhaps more than coincidence that after Flame, it was six years before Slade had another Top 10 hit.

All the same, Flame has accrued an unlikely cult status over the years, partly due to the credibility afforded Slade in the 1990s when championed by the likes of Oasis, and partly because, like many cult movies, it's been rarely screened, televised or made commercially available since. All of which makes this, its DVD debut, doubly momentous.

Flame wasn't the first British rock movie to dramatise the underside of the pop world (there'd been 1967's dystopic fantasy Privilege, the drugs and gangland madness of Performance and David Essex's fall from grace in 1974's Stardust), but what makes Flame so unique is its sheer dourness. Even given its more colourful interludes—Noddy Holder trapped in his stage-prop coffin (based on a real-life anecdote involving Screaming Lord Sutch) or the brief moments of thuggish violence (a gruesome toe-cutting scene with Alan Lake which had to be censored to avoid an X certificate)—the film's resolute lack of glamour is all-consuming. There's rock'n'roll, obviously, but sex and drugs are non-existent, replaced by domestic misery and petty squabbling. When Dave Hill's character moans about not having any "coke" in the studio, he really is referring to fizzy cola.

Slade's own acting abilities are noticeably limited—especially beside proper thesps like Tom Conti or the excellent Johnny Shannon (who, as the villainous Harding, virtually recreates his Performance role of Harry Flowers off pat). Only Noddy Holder, who years later became an unlikely TV star in The Grimleys, emerges with any sort of naturalism. Yet for all its minor flaws, Flame is a fascinating and at times incredible piece of work; the incredulity being that a film so soul-destroying in its thesis on the music biz could have even been made at the height of glam, by Slade of all people. Get very down, but get with it.

Rating: 4 / 10

Directed by richard loncraine


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