Friday, January 18, 2008

Turds like coal-barges

Recently, BBC4 has been running a season on pop music. Along with some great archive stuff - full editions of Top of the Pops from 1967 or 1978 - and some quirky documentaries - like Paul Morley examing 'Pop:What is it good for?' by going to interview the bloke from Mud who wrote 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head' - and some really quite irritating stuff (my tolerance level for middle-aged, middle-class men in suits nodding along to Wyclef 'up there with Bob Marley' Jean CDS** (which, admittedly, wasn't very high in the first place) has plunged dramatically - they have also been showing some pop films - the Mayles' Brothers 'Gimme Shelter', Ken Russell and The Who's 'Tommy', hitting a peak (at least for me) last night with a rare screening of the Slade movie 'Flame'.

Made in 1975, but set about ten years earlier, the film is a drama starring Slade as the glampop group Flame, apparently based on a lot of real-life events, recounted by Slade to the writer during a lengthy American tour. I've heard about the film for years but never had the chance to see it before now. And it truly was, as someone reviewed it 'the missing link between A Hard Day's Night, Kes and Spinal Tap' (although, to be fair, no-one's probably ever tried to make a link between Kes and Spinal Tap before).

Starting off with a shot of a bloke having a piss (nothing like setting your stall out as far as dirty realism goes), the camera does a pretty elegant track down the front of the house and out into a marquee in the garden where the band-that-will-be-Flame are playing a shit wedding gig with their overblown, fat Elvis of a singer, Jack Daniels (played by Diana Dors husband Alan Lake)(who, apparently, looked and acted in real life exactly like he is in the film). Cheeky Dave Hill, apparently the lad-about-town, looker of the band......uses his guitar to lift up a girl's skirt, gets seen by a boozy guest and the next thing you know there's a full-on wedding fight going on. Cut to the blackest, grimmest factory you've ever seen in your life, where we find the soon-to-be-Flame-drummer working. A couple of minutes in and already it's great - funny, cynical and well-filmed with some pretty good performances all round.

The film's got the look of the late Sixties/early Seventies distilled into an almost perfectly grim form - every other shot seems to be filled with boarded-up windows or overflowing bins. The texture of the film is piss, booze and tobacco (there's a hell of a lot of smoking and drinking)(and quite a bit of pissing), and at every moment where there's an option to make something look as fucked-up and desolate as possible, it's taken.

One of the best examples of this is where drummer Charlie (Don Powell) goes back to his home town and visits his old factory boss. The scene is staged with the two walking down a canal bank and under a bridge, the boss pushing his bike and talking about how when he was a kid he used to swim in the canal: "Mind you" he says, "it was always more turds than fishes. You used to see them float past you, like coal barges." There's a lovely kind of poetry there - a poetry comprised of childhood innocence and shit.

The story of the film is the classic rock film trajectory of struggle-success-everythingfallsapart, but it's done with humour and style and the band always seem convincing. It's not perfect - it's hard to tell how much time is supposed to have passed in the film (four years apparently, but it feels like about 3 months), and some of the sound is appallling. Also, you sometimes want to see more of what the band are actually doing, in terms of their career and in terms of their interpersonal relationships - the film focuses probabaly a little too much on the subplot of agents Tom Conti and Johnny Shannon battling to control the band - maybe because it was felt that they, as more 'proper' actors, could carry a lot more of the scenes - with the result that it's one music film where you actually feel you want to see more of the band. But for all those faults, it's still great, with nice little touches (Noddy Holder's character is called Stoker, after Bram - maybe because his first band, patterned on Lord Sutch, is called The Undertakers and has a ghoulish stage-act) and odd little moments (as part of The Undertakers stage act, Noddy sings from inside a coffin, which is fine, except each time they cut to the shot, there appear to be, without any explanation, three moving hands in the coffin.)And part of it (I don't know which part) was apparently filmed in Nottingham. Which means we can legitimately claim it as part of the East Midlands cinematic heritage.

Bet it was the bit about the turds.

**(go to about 39 minutes to see what I mean)


Anonymous said...

Steven the film was released on DVD last year by union Square Music

Karen Guthrie said...

I loved that BBC$ series too but am now gutted to have missed this!

Steven Sheil said...

Gary, thanks for that, I'll look out for it.

Karen - there you go, you can get it on DVD...

...or, alternatively, we Sky+d it, so I'll be keeping it anyway. Congratulations on the prize, by the way.