Viewed from this distance the success of Slade in the early Seventies seems unlikely yet a series of hit singles, several of which topped the UK charts, made them the period’s top homegrown pop act. Unlike their peers they never tried to be cool or distant, in fact their appeal was partly based on likeability. They were four ordinary blokes from the Midlands who’s catchy, if repetitive songs, struck a chord. They saw their chance and donned glam rock sequins with enthusiasm even if their stage wear looked like it was run up the previous night on a sewing machine. By 1975 however their appeal was waning and they would subsequently make one of the classic UK pop star errors by going off to try and make it big in the United States at the expense of their established British audience. Before that though they made a film.
Slade in Flame is a movie whose reputation has grown over the decades since its release. Initially even the band didn’t much care for it but slowly it has gained respect for its authentic approach. The four members of Slade take on the roles of the four members of fictional band Flame. Though they have character names and the story is not autobiographical though they have since admitted that the idea was to play versions of themselves. They wing it well, given a minimum of dialogue and a chance to put over their personalities they convince in a way that actors playing these roles would not. Thus the film is full of brief exchanges, often on the move and a matey vibe which turns sour when Flame become increasingly successful at the expense of losing their identity.
Richard Loncraine makes his directorial debut though you’d never know he lacked experience. From a bold opening shot and good use of shadow and ordinary light he fashions a surprisingly arty film given the subject matter. Whether catching the exuberance of pop success or the seedy downside of business, he presents each aspect so well. That opening establishes the house style- it may be a showy tracking shot but it is of a surburban wedding party and this mix of strong direction depicting ordinary goings on serves the story well. It owes much to the grittier Uk fare of the time and has some similarities with That’ll Be the Day in which fellow pop star David Essex starred. However the focus here is musical than rites of passage and this film is more enjoyable even if Essex was the better actor.
Flame’s rise is treated speedily and the film is not interested in the nuts and bolts of their progress. All of a sudden they are stars and this allows for plenty of well shot sequences showing just how good a live band Slade themselves were. The only real difference between Slade and Flame are the latter’s professionally designed stage clothes.
When the group become famous, the cameras take us into the heart of the melee as girls chase limos and rush the group as they dash into hotels. Perhaps subconsciously they wanted to re-create for posterity the hysteria that had surrounded Slade but which was by then fading. Of course fans going to see this film might have been expecting the hits and something lighter. Instead it’s all new songs plus several scenes depicting the seedier side of the music business which make bold incisions into the musical content.
The heft of strong actors helps lift these sequences. There’s an early role for Tom Conti as a pragmatic manager who doesn’t care about the music, all oily efficiency. Johnny Shannon is casually menacing as Ron Harding, Flame’s former handler who resorts to some extreme measures to try and win back their signature. Alan Lake is on boisterous form as the group’s original Fifties inspired singer. That the four members of Slade can hold their own in such company says much for their enthusiasm for this project. It does look though as if it might have been tricky to hold down their natural bonhomie at times as it is at odds with the downbeat nature of other parts of the film; Dave Hill in particular seems to be sidelined a lot of the time.
It has to be said though that the weak link in the film proves to be the songs Slade provided. With two notable exceptions, these lack the character and drive of their best known hits making it seem unlikely such material would really be so successful. However we do get `Far, Far Away` which shows how well they fare when moving away from their shouty template plus we are also gifted the peerless `How Does It Feel`. Playing over the opening credits and re-used in different forms a couple of times later it is now acknowledged as Slade’s finest song. Piano led it has a melancholy that suits the emptiness of fame that the film’s latter section depicts.
The movie is tightly edited but would have benefitted from another fifteen minutes. I felt that when it came to the issues that caused the group to splinter at the end these are glossed over depriving the viewer of a big dramatic moment the story needs. These last scenes of the band partying in an expensive hotel are less convincing than their early days and suggests that authenticity only went so far when it came to protecting Slade’s reputation. On the other hand I suppose the matter of fact ending is typical of the band’s rejection of pretence. Unlike many (most?) others in their position Slade (and Flame) held onto their roots.
On the dvd there’s some more recent interviews with the band members wherein they seem to view the film with more respect now than they did back then. They’re eager to draw a distance between fiction and fact but there is an admirable down to earth quality about the film that time only enhances.