In 1974, Slade were at the height of their powers and popularity, with six number 1 singles under their belts, so, like Elvis and The Beatles amongst others before them, the next logical step beyond music was to break into films. However, unlike Viva Las Vegas and A Hard Day's Night, they chose to make a movie that takes a cynical and unflattering look at the music industry, and the villains and victims who work in it.
The story of Flame charts the rise of four working-class men from an unnamed part of 1960s England (the locations look like the North, but the band speak in their native Black Country accents). Picked up by a marketing company, headed by slimy Robert Seymour (played by Tom Conti), and pushed as the next big thing, they quickly go from poverty, dead end jobs and run down houses, to mansions, Bentleys, and screaming fans. However, along the way a sinister figure from their past reappears, their former manager Ron Harding (Johnny Shannon, largely reprising his role in Performance), and he is looking to claim a slice of their success, by any means necessary.
By using non-actors as the main characters, and keeping to a low key, almost documentary style, director Richard Loncraine is working in the same league as many of his British contemporaries, such as Ken Loach and Mike Hodges, in particular, the latter's Get Carter, with its grim post-war housing estates and grimy social clubs.
The script is, according to Slade singer Noddy Holder, pretty much based on anecdotes and incidents that happened to the band or other musicians that they knew. Slade, while not great actors, come over as believable and not too wooden, probably due to the fact that they are largely playing themselves, and in situations they are more than used to, such as playing in front of huge crowds, playing in front of small crowds, getting ripped off by dodgy agents etc. The dialogue is sharp, with some good one-liners (“I'm not the vocalist, I'm the singer”), emphasising the fun loving (at the start at least), unpretentious nature of the band.
What is most surprising is the growing air of pessimism throughout the film, something in total contrast to everything Slade appeared to represent. I have always assumed that one of the reasons for their huge UK success in the early to mid-70s was that their music and image provided a bit of relief and escapism to a country caught in the middle of the Three Day Week, power cuts, strikes, and assorted other grimness. Flame, while not overwhelmingly bleak, constantly undercuts any happiness with a scene of people being hurt (physically and emotionally), ripped off, or humiliated.
I also think it is interesting that out of all of the live performances we see from Slade/Flame, by far the best is the very first time they play together for an audience in a small smoky club. After warming the crowd up with some X-rated banter, they race through a great raucous, high-energy song (“Them Kinda Monkeys Can’t Swing”). After that, the music gets slicker, the crowds get bigger, but nothing ever recaptures that raw power and fun, both for the audience and the musicians.
By the end, nobody comes out as a winner. Harding is left with a pyrrhic victory; he has his band back, precisely at the moment they split. The band have had enough, the simple fun of four friends playing music, crushed long ago by an industry interested in everything but that music. Seymour has had his family traumatised and their cosy home life ruined.
Given the aforementioned gulf between Slade’s image, and their downbeat film, it might not be surprising to hear that Flame was not a box office success. However, the soundtrack was a commercial and critical hit, getting to number six in the UK album charts and appearing on a list of the top 50 film soundtracks ever. This is not a jolly uplifting film by any means, but highly recommended for fans of Slade, and of gritty British cinema.