Slade inhabits an estimable place in rock history alongside other British acts -- The Move and The Jam, to name a couple -- who failed to “break America” despite achieving massive commercial success at home. Part of that is because the populist end of the glam rock spectrum that Slade occupied never really caught on here in the States. While artier glam acts like Bowie and Roxy Music attained a foothold on American album-oriented radio, stompers like Slade never really made inroads to the U.S. teenage audience for whom their music was most suited (at least not until they did so secondhand via cover versions like Quiet Riot’s “Cum On Feel the Noize”). Yet, while Slade’s self-penned tunes were indeed as mindless and football chant-ready as those of any other soldiers in the glitter army, the band itself had an authenticity born of its organic, yobbo roughness that put it in good stead when compared to more manufactured seeming acts like The Sweet or Mud.
When their success poised Slade to make their screen debut in 1974, the choice they faced was that seemingly faced by every pop act determined to make a cinematic cash grab since the days of the Beatles. And that was whether to play fictional versions of themselves in a mock, “day in the life” style documentary a la A Hard Day’s Night, or to play fictional versions of themselves dropped into the middle of a freewheeling satirical romp a la Help! A script for a film based on the latter model -- titled The Quite a Mess Experiment, in a spoofing reference to The Quatermass Experiment (a sign that Slade had at this point resigned themselves to their irreducible Englishness) -- was even proposed, but ultimately rejected. Instead, with Slade in Flame, Slade chose to take a very different route: that of portraying a sort of fictional every-band whose experiences serve as a dark expose of the British music industry. Suffice it to say that no one could have expected something as bleak, sober and heartbreaking as this movie from the band who sang “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”.
It’s easy to see Slade in Flame as autobiographical, although Slade has made clear that a lot of what it depicts is anecdotal rather than directly experienced. Nonetheless, the members of the band share the same working class roots as their fictional counterparts -- Slade hailing from the West Midlands, while Flame haunts an industrial North recognizable from the Red Riding films. Additionally, for a good portion of Slade’s career -- a long stretch that lasted from the group’s inception in 1966 until they had their first hit in 1971 -- they were a rough-knuckled “working” band in much the same mold as Flame. It’s just such bands, unsophisticated and hungry from years of thanklessly treading the boards one night into the next, that are the grist for the corporate machinations that Slade in Flame depicts -- and if its events don’t match up point for point with its stars’ actual experiences, it’s hard to imagine that there aren’t at least a few scores being settled.
The film opens upon three quarters of Flame playing a series of dreary wedding and supper club gigs as the backup for an aging Elvis wannabe (a potential figure of fun who‘s portrayed with great empathy by Alan Lake). In a mildly disorienting turn, Stoker, the character played by Slade frontman Noddy Holder, makes his first appearance as the singer of a rival group, a corny shock-rock outfit whose stage antics are clearly modeled on Screaming Lord Sutch. With his formidable mutton chops, wily demeanor, and rabid cat’s squall of a voice, Holder can’t help but be a larger-than-life -- and frequently laugh-out-loud funny -- presence. But what’s surprising here is how naturalistically he performs during the film’s more low key moments. Nonetheless, it falls upon Slade’s drummer, Don Powell -- another natural -- to play the real everyman of the group; Charlie, the band’s drummer, who toils in an iron works by day and gigs by night, all while living with his elderly parents in a tiny flat and dodging payments for his rented kit.
After a bonding session over the course of a night spent in jail, Stoker agrees to replace Flame’s singer, and soon thereafter alienates the group’s sleazy booking agent, Harding (Performance's Johnny Shannon), with his frank assessment of his character. This clears the stage for the newly vivified band to come to the attention of Seymour (Tom Conti, in an early star turn), a slick corporate marketing type who sees in them an opportunity for a quick payday. After a particularly cynical publicity stunt puts the group in the public eye, a hit record is not long to follow. The resulting smell of money then brings Harding back onto the scene, binding contract in hand, putting the group at the center of a tug of war between his and Seymour’s opposing camps. A product of the same hardscrabble milieu as the boys, Harding quickly proves willing to take the fight to the lowest level possible, employing a pair of sociopathic cockney goons straight out of a Ted Lewis novel for the purpose. Some dark and ugly business follows.
Despite their top billing, Slade becomes increasingly peripheral to Flame’s action during its final half, which is only as it should be. The film is admirably hard-nosed in its depiction of the band as an object of exploitation, and as such deprived of agency -- a product to be unceremoniously cut loose once everyone has made their profit, even if integrity, friendships, and illusions are to be shattered in the process. At the same time, director Richard Loncraine takes care to contrast against the gritty industrial “before” of the group’s day-to-day world the antiseptic boardrooms and prim society parties that make up Seymour’s upper class universe -- two worlds as far removed from one another as the monochrome Kansas of The Wizard of Oz’s prologue and what follows it. Conti’s Seymour is no caricatured fat cat, to be sure, but simply a man so sheltered by privilege and driven by class imperatives that he could never hope to connect with these young men whose lives his actions are so profoundly to affect. (Asked by the group’s bass player if he even likes their music, Seymour sniffs that he doesn’t smoke but has nonetheless sold a lot of cigarettes.) It is just this cloistered mindset that leaves Seymour woefully unprepared when the violent world of Harding, whom he has failed to take seriously, suddenly starts to encroach upon his own.
Slade’s songs for Slade in Flame were composed at a time when the group, in the face of dwindling sales, was retooling its rowdier early sound toward a slicker, pop rock style. The tunes are enjoyable for the most part, but fans are nonetheless unlikely to look to the film as a document of the band at its musical peak. Slade in Flame does, however, provide an opportunity for those fans to see Slade in a new light. While the film met with a mixed reception upon its release, it has since undergone a positive reappraisal, and has even been lauded by some as being among the best British pop films ever made. Some of this can be credited to the band members themselves (including, in addition to Holder and Powell, bassist Jim Lea and lead guitarist Dave Hill) who, while not counting an Olivier among them, bring to the screen the humanity necessary to drive home the story’s ultimately tragic dimensions. True, the picture may have sunk once and for all the group’s good time image, but in the interest of a movie as solid as Slade in Flame -- whose charms easily outlive those of misspelled song titles and weird facial hair -- that’s a tradeoff that now looks pretty reasonable.