“Gordon’s Alive!!” Flash Gordon (1980)

flash1You waited long enough. Why Now?  I’ve mentioned this a few times on this blog, but up to now I’d only seen this film in pieces during tv showings, where I’d sit down for maybe twenty minutes and walk away from it a little horrified. Turns out there was a good twenty-thirty minutes I’d never seen at all. As for why now, well, there is a restored edition coming out on 4K UHD this week that has all the films fan excited, and I figured, well, maybe its finally time, so I pulled it up on Sky Cinema.

So whats it about, then?  Seriously? Oh go on then. Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), Emperor of the Universe, has turned to Earth as his new plaything, threatening total destruction as he hurls storms and disasters at the planet. Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) a discredited ex-Nasa scientist is the only one who deduces the disasters are of extra-terrestrial origin, and intends to use a rocketship in his greenhouse (sigh, stay with me, its that sort of movie) to fly into space and save the Earth. He enlists the assistance of New York Jets Quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) and ace reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and they race into space to face the tyranny of the despotic Ming.

Any good? Well, no, and few even of its fans would claim it to be. Its one of those “so bad its good” movies- for my part, I’d rate a film like Lifeforce in that department too, there’s loads of bad films that fans still manage to obsess over. Famously, George Lucas made uber-hit Star Wars only after his overtures to Dino De Laurentis to purchase the rights to Flash Gordon failed, and Dino, later seeing Star Wars make millions, decided he’d get a slice of the action by making Flash Gordon himself. Dino would discover making a modern-day space fantasy rather more difficult than it originally seemed, as would those behind so many jumping on the Star Wars bandwagon post-1977 (Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Star Crash etc).

Dino’s project did everything wrong: Dino, possibly suffering from Movie Mogul Madness chose an unknown lead rather than an established actor (I think Kurt Russell was in the running for awhile), Dino obviously thinking he could make an unknown into a Superstar –  likely having an eye towards Christopher Reeve’s success in Superman: The Movie (Dino evidently forgetting that Reeves was at least an actor: Jones can’t act, and Flash comes across as bumbling imbecile, albeit his silly innocence proves endearing to many fans). That’s not the only thing he didn’t heed from Richard Donner’s movie, of course: Flash Gordon is decidedly camp, ironically one of the things that possibly saves it in the end in a “well we know we’re rubbish, buts its only meant to fun!” kind of way, but Donner’s film taught the lesson that you had to take this stuff seriously, which Lucas had also done with Star Wars and Marvel would later heed decades after. At one point Superman: The Movie was indeed as camp as Flash Gordon, something Donner changed when he took that project over from Guy Hamilton, and when Donner was pushed out, its telling that the Superman sequels all degenerated further and further into campness becoming more like Flash Gordon in every unfortunate instalment, so, er, the producers of Superman: The Movie themselves hardly heeded their own lesson, the crazy fools.

Flash Gordon also had the wrong director, and a bad co-star (Melody Anderson is pleasant enough, but hardly set the film world on fire, utterly lacking the spark of Carrie Fisher or Margot Kidder). Flash Gordon is a pretty dire, easily forgettable movie only saved by an utterly superlative Queen soundtrack. We all had that soundtrack back in 1980/1981, even those of us who didn’t like the film or didn’t go to see it.

So worth waiting for? Are you kidding? Well, it is kind of oddly fun, I suppose. I can understand the nostalgia making fans ignore the films many shortcomings (which are too many to mention here, really). Its one of those films that the fans can champion those mistakes and failures, revelling in its badness, so is utterly impregnable from criticism.

Worthless observation? I was surprised how much in the background that Queen soundtrack really is – Howard Blake’s orchestral score doing a lot more heavy lifting than I expected. I really rather thought the film would have the feel of a rock video, sequences cut to the Queen soundtrack entirely, but it doesn’t seem to have been, which makes me suspect that the film-makers didn’t know what they had until the film was released and the audiences reacted to it. The Queen music elevates the film to a Space Rock-Opera, and had it gone ‘all the way’ a little more like The Rocky Horror Show the film might have been a delirious crazy treat and a huge success. Or not. Maybe the world wasn’t quite ready for Flash Gordon: The Musical, even with the Queen music, but I suspect the world might have been a better place with it.

As an additional bonus observation, I point readers towards my review of the interesting documentary Life After Flash for more Flash Gordon, er,  stuff.

Life After Flash

life1There 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.”

life2The 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.

life4Films 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.

 

Bohemian Rhapsody 4K UHD (2018)

bohem1.jpgWell, you can’t accuse the producers of this film of letting the truth get in the way of a really good story. Basically a sanitised story about the great rock band Queen, it definitely is not a warts-and-all biopic of its frontman Freddie Mercury. The fascinating drama I expected, of drugs, sex and rock and roll and living life to the max isn’t really here. Instead this film follows a somewhat pedestrian, formulaic narrative of four outsiders creating a legendary rock band, ts various plot threads leading to a somewhat dubious finale in which the band single-handedly saves Live Aid, the recreation of which is pretty astonishing (but as a finale it feels too obvious/manufactured).

So in some ways it does seem to be a terribly wasted opportunity- on the other hand, though, it’s simply a great yarn simply told, with an absolutely killer soundtrack of classic songs throughout. Its pretty much nigh on irresistible.

I’m not a die-hard fan of the band so I’m certainly no expert, but I’m pretty certain some of the timeline is questionable, and to be honest there was a point midway through at which I just felt I was being taken for a mug but should just go along with it. The film feels more of a rock and roll fantasy than a docu-drama, and the way it manipulates with close-up shots of smiling, happy faces towards the end, tieing up any loose ends with valedictory character beats for Freddie’s freinds, family and colleagues, feels awfully… managed, even cynical. We’re going to have a happy, positive flag-waving finale even though we know where Freddie’s own story is ultimately heading: it’s only a movie and this one isn’t going to end like Philadelphia (which may be a pity, really, because that was deeply powerful, and maybe this film might have benefited from doing that- but this just isn’t that movie).

Its a decidedly PC-era film about a decidedly un-PC era, leaving me wondering if there’s a danger nowadays of us rewriting history simply to make it more palatable. I’ve read and heard of some pretty incredible stories of bands and rock stars in the 1970s- drugs, sex, wild parties, great music, monumental fights, terrible scandals; but how much of that can you get way with now without upsetting/insulting/horrifying the tender audiences of today’s more enlightened society? I’ve read of some of Freddies parties, the wild debauchery of which could be hugely extravagant and ridiculous but there is little to suggest that here other than people getting drunk and playing music loud. Then again, we might know that it all happened, but do we need to see it, does it add anything to the narrative in a film where we aren’t really getting into who Freddie was? Instead he remains an icon, and something of an enigma- and a fantastic performer and musician. I just think its a little unfortunate that the film is so obviously intent on protecting Freddie and his legacy when it doesn’t really need to- his fans know everything and love him all the more. He was human, flawed and fragile and hugely charismatic and talented- we get a glimpse of the ‘real’ Freddie but not all we might have in a more daring film.

But what the hell, it’s still a hell of a story.