Judge Paul Corupe reviews the UK's answer to Roxy Music. Wait, they were from the UK too. Never mind.
"Do you actually like what we do?"—Paul (Jim Lea)
Although they never really caught on in America, Slade were a tremendously popular glam rock outfit in their native UK where they landed 11 top five hits from 1971 to 1974. Led by the guttural vocals of Noddy Holder, Slade were more akin to the drunken, balls-out pub rock sounds of Sweet and the New York Dolls than the campier posturing of Queen or David Bowie. Their trademark was purposely-misspelled song titles backed up by rowdy lyrics, thick bluesy guitars and driving rhythms. In the early 1980s, Quiet Riot covered two Slade compositions, "Cum on Feel the Noize" and "Mama Weer All Crazee Now," but a North American fan base consistently eluded them.
When Slade agreed to star in a film, at the height of their popularity, they chose to buck the obvious trend. Taking a conscious step away from previous band films like Head and A Hard Day's Night, the lads instead offered a dark look behind the curtain of stardom in this fictional tale. Humorous and bittersweet, Slade in Flame was years ahead of its time, and is now rightly hailed as one of the strongest rock and roll films ever made.
Facts of the Case
Bassist Paul (Jim Lea), drummer Charlie (Don Powell), guitarist Barry (Dave Hill), and "I'm not the vocalist, I'm the singer" Stoker (Noddy Holder) first meet when they are playing in the unstable local rock scene around London. After their respective bands disintegrate, they decide to form Flame. The group clicks, but after playing a rollicking first show, they are confounded when their agent quits. What seems like a setback actually works out in their favor, as Flame soon find they have some new fans—at a major record label. The boys are brought in to meet with label honcho Robert Seymour (Tom Conti, Shirley Valentine), and begin recording an album.
As increasingly cheesy publicity stunts, orchestrated by the label's PR department, take precedence over the music, the members of Flame learn that rock stardom isn't all it's cracked up to be (surprise!). Worse, their old agent confronts Seymour and claims that Flame is still under his exclusive contract. Meanwhile, the members of Flame are getting tired of being treated like commodities and start to look for a way out.
In his interview on the DVD, Holder is quick to distance his group Slade from the band they portrayed in the film. Although Flame's fictional rise to stardom shares several details with Slade's, the script was an amalgamation of hard luck stories from various British bands and Chas Chandler, ex-bassist from the Animals (and Slade's then current manager). One of the classic scenes has Stoker playing in a band called "The Undertakers," using a gimmick where he would burst on stage out of a coffin. Inspired by an anecdote from Screamin' Lord Sutch, in this film the future members of Flame slap a padlock on the box before The Undertakers start playing, ruining their show.
As actors, the members of Slade make good musicians. The band is usually just sufficient enough to make their parts work, but nothing more. Holder actually went on to do some TV after the band broke up, but the other members of the band have some difficulty with their roles. Powell visibly struggles not to look into the camera and has problems stringing more than ten words together. Wisely, he is kept in the background for much of the picture. Helping to even out the acting is Conti, who is perfectly dodgy as the label president.
Slade in Flame was also meant as a showcase for the band's songs, and they get their chance to strut their stuff with a live performance at the end. The film represented a slight change in direction for the band, one that would end their domination of the British charts for almost a decade. Piano-laden ballads make more than one appearance during the film, and the lads even beef things up with a brass section on a couple tracks. Despite its ridiculous title, "Them Kinda Monkeys Can't Swing" is the furious slide guitar highlight of the film, the song that brings Flame to the attention of the label. The film's closer, the melancholy "Far, Far Away," is acknowledged as one of Slade's finest moments.
Although the release of Slade in Flame was critically acclaimed, audiences were taken aback with the cynical view of rock and roll music it presented. The music industry is consistently portrayed as a cruel, cutthroat business. Nobody, from their sleazy agent to the club owners to the label, even likes rock music; to them, Flame is purely a product to be marketed no differently than laundry detergent. You won't find too many people who disagree with this opinion of major record labels today, but in the 1970s, it must have seemed like this film was made for industry insiders, not fans. A widespread change in attitude about the business behind the music industry is the real reason the film holds up so remarkably well for viewers today.
The print looks pretty good for a film of such obvious low-budget origins. Consistent grain and washed out-colors are visible throughout, but there are few artifacts. Overall, this disc looks better than I anticipated. The sound quality is less impressive. When Slade in Flame was originally released to North American theaters, it featured a subtitle track. Thick British accents and quaint expressions like "gnat's piss" probably wouldn't have played well in Middle America, and the muffled soundtrack only made matters worse. Since the included stereo track also sounds relatively cramped and subdued, optional subtitles should have been included.
There's only one extra on this disc, a 58-minute interview with Holder. Anyone looking for a little behind the scenes info will be more than happy with this bonus feature. Holder is excitable and animated throughout, covering quite a bit of ground. Short clips from the film highlight scenes as they are discussed, and there are enough enjoyable anecdotes thrown in to make this interview definitely worth a viewing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are a few problems with this release. Some sources indicate that the actual running length for Slade in Flame is 91 minutes, which suggests there may be about five minutes of footage missing from this release. And have you ever seen a DVD in two different aspect ratios? Well, that's what you get with Shout Factory's release. The opening and closing credits are presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, but the film itself is 1.85:1. This may not seriously bother anyone who has never seen the film before, but it certainly should have been released in the proper format. Shout Factory has addressed concerns about the transfer, stating this was the only master they could find, one which has been available in the UK from another company for about a year. While it certainly would have been nice to have a perfect version of the film, for now this is as close as we are going to get.
Now that audience attitudes have caught up with Slade in Flame, this is the perfect time for Shout Factory to re-release this film. While the die-hard Slade fan is no doubt going to be thrilled that this film is finally out on DVD, others will have to judge whether or not they mind the obvious problems with the transfer and cut of the film. Those curious about Slade or rock films won't be disappointed with a rental.
The record industry is reprimanded for not cumming on or feeling the noize, while girls are found guilty on four separate counts of rocking their boys.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Interview with Noddy Holder
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