There is something really quite sad about this documentary; maybe there is something truly life-affirming, too. I’m stuck somewhere in between, really, considering it. On the face of it, it’s a harmless film about the actor Sam Jones who played Flash Gordon in the 1980 movie, and his life before and after the movie. He seems a charming guy who made some terrible mistakes and suffered for his ego, a self-confessed serial adulterer who made some ill choices in his personal life and followed bad advice career-wise, and seems to have eventually gotten his life back on track. He seems to have become quite a role-model for some, quite a change for someone who was such a jerk making the movie, walking away and refusing to go back after the Winter production break.
On the other hand, I think its more than just a little scary seeing how fixated people can be on a film that’s as lousy as Flash Gordon proved to be. Mind, every film has its fans and I have to be careful here- I’m quite self-aware enough of my own fixation on a certain 1982 movie (which is clearly a much better movie, by the way) to know that people do get a bit obsessed about things. When we’re growing up, we tend to latch onto things that make a marked impression on us, whether it be a book, a movie, a music album, a television series- we seem to identify ourselves through it, and over the years we seem to be unable to let it go. Nostalgia and having a tangible link to the past, simpler/happier times, seems to be the main culprit.
I’m old enough to remember when Flash Gordon came out, the film part of a wave of post-Star Wars projects, in film and television that tried to capitalise on the sci-fi/fantasy boom. It was a wave that culminated in 1982 with films like E.T., The Thing, Tron, Blade Runner, Star Trek II, Conan the Barbarian, The Dark Crystal and others, but getting there, we suffered all sorts of misfires, like The Black Hole, Starcrash, Star Trek: TMP, Battlestar Galactica… and Flash Gordon was just one of them. They weren’t all terrible movies, but they all aspired to be the ‘next Star Wars‘ and they all seemed to find the magic of that 1977 movie hard to capture in a celluloid bottle- hell, George Lucas found it tricky enough himself.
I remember when Flash Gordon came out it did so to mixed, if not unfavourable reviews. From the start, its failures in narrative and execution seemed to be excused by its campness, its irreverent attitude, which to me at the time (at the tender age of fourteen) seemed woefully inappropriate. Star Wars was fun, but it took itself seriously. Flash Gordon seemed an unwelcome return to the sensibility of the Adam West Batman tv show of the 1960s. To me, it was almost an affront- sci-fi films had always been the poor-mans film genre, the stuff of tacky b-movies, and at last Star Wars had shown how it could be done, with quality production values and seriousness. People forget but it was such a huge thing back in 1978 when Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie took itself so seriously, treating its subject with some reverence. Flash Gordon seemed to be suggesting that no, this stuff is daft and silly, don’t take it seriously, its just kids stuff, which to my young self took as an affront. Maybe I was wrong, but Flash Gordon was the wrong film at the wrong time, certainly for me.
But I did like the music.
I remember an interesting conversation during my college course in the late 1980s. We were on a trip down to London to see the galleries, staying in a hotel for a few nights, and we had a party in one of the rooms, and I’ll never forget a semi-drunk conversation when the topic of discussion turned to the Flash Gordon movie. At that point I’d long since moved on and forgotten the film, having dismissed it when it first came out, so I was surprised when one of the lecturers commented on it. “The film was pretty awful, really,” he admitted, “but the atmosphere in there (the cinema) was incredible. It was the music! The young people were going mad. It was like a rock concert more than a movie.”
The music saved Flash Gordon. Without that score it would have been another Starcrash, a cheesy and hopeless attempt to do another Star Wars. Well, the Alex Ross paintings did their bit, too. Ross is a huge fan of the movie and his beautiful paintings, used for publicity and DVD covers over the years, have done a big part of keeping the film in the public consciousness. Funnily enough, though, they seem to be paintings of a film that doesn’t exist, promising a film Flash Gordon isn’t. The film that Flash Gordon should have been, maybe, like the teaser poster by Philip Castle that I recall seeing in an issue of Starlog thinking, ‘wow! That looks cool!’ only to find the film actually looked nothing like it.
Films like Star Wars were difficult back then, visual effects companies capable of executing stuff like that would be decades away, frankly, unless you could go to ILM and even then it was possibly beyond them, truly (but would have looked a whole lot better). As Dino would find a few years later with the 1984 Dune, it ain’t easy to execute that stuff convincingly. Three Star Wars movies burnt Lucas out.
So anyway, I really didn’t ‘get’ Flash Gordon– certainly not in the same way as the many fans featured in Life After Flash did. It does seem a little bizarre, I mean, the film didn’t/doesn’t really deserve all that praise and attention, or does it? I suppose I’m getting back to that thing I wrote earlier, every film has its fans. There’s no accounting for taste, or what strikes a chord in someone at just the right time for it to leave a mark on them for the rest of their lives.
Funny how Avatar doesn’t appear to have had a similar impact upon its generation, isn’t it?
Life After Flash is an interesting documentary film- its surprisingly unfocused, really, neither an in-depth film about Sam Jones’ life after Flash Gordon, nor a film about the making of Flash Gordon and peoples memories of it, instead its really a mix of both, and seems to jump around a bit. Which is fine I guess. It does manage to get a surprising number of actors and production people involved who speak quite candidly at times, although unfortunately I’d suggest it lacks a certain critical perspective, but that’s possibly just me never having fully made my peace with the film. They guys talk about the film as if its a genius piece of art, instead of the camp mess that was saved by a Rock band’s unlikely music score. You either ‘get it’ or you don’t, I suppose, and I imagine Brian Blessed would enjoy bashing some sense into me with Prince Vultan’s hammer. Likewise those sections concerning Same Jones’ personal life is inevitably dominated by his friends and family that love him, so its hardly as candid as it possibly might be, but its not that kind of warts-and-all documentary, and Jones seems to have become a pretty decent guy. This documentary is clearly made by the fans for the fans, and with that caveat considered, its an enjoyable piece of work.
Life After Flash is currently available on Amazon Prime, and will be included on at least one edition of an upcoming 4K home video release of the film as a bonus feature.