Film reviews

Life After Flash – Review

Professor of Literature Joseph Campbell famously defined the notion of the hero’s journey in mythology and culture – it was perhaps most notably embodied in Star Wars, but is generally transposed into the typical three-act arc seen so frequently in Hollywood movies. Ideas like the call to adventure, an extraordinary journey, the ordeal and fall, then the redemption and journey back, with a triumphant finale to wrap things up in a high note.

It’s a structure that is seen in the classic 1980 comic adaptation Flash Gordon, but also in the personal life story of its leading man, Sam J. Jones: he burst onto cinema screens as the New York Jets quarterback turned saviour of Earth in a triumphant fashion, yet his career seemed to stall at that point, and despite various cameos in series and films, as well as a leading role in short-lived show The Highwayman, he seemed to vanish into relative obscurity, as well as the fond nostalgic memories of a generation for whom he was king of the impossible. He appeared destined to be another one of those ‘whatever happened to…?’ subjects, with a typically tragic bent as tends to be the way with such things.

However, British director Lisa Downs has taken it upon herself to tell the story of not only the life of an actor whose career appeared to have peaked and waned so quickly, but also the phenomenon that is Flash Gordon itself. From a connection which arose purely by chance via a friend who had been working on the Channel 4 series The Jump on which Sam J. Jones had appeared, Downs took to the internet and crowdfunding site Indiegogo, in order to get the funding together to bring to life her wish to see a documentary about the actor and movie which meant so much to her from childhood.

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It truly is a labour of love, and the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to have been given the green light had it been done via the more traditional means of pitching it to a studio. One of the huge benefits of the  internet is that it’s given the opportunity to bring to fruition projects which would have otherwise remained a pipe dream, and shows there can be a positive side to fandom, after raising over £10,000 to get things moving. Having lived and breathed Life After Flash since 2015, the finished article by Downs has now hit VOD release around the world, with a DVD and Blu-ray coming not far behind it.

Credit: Life After Flash

Catching up with someone after they’ve been away from the limelight for some time can be precarious and problematic, particularly as it may not end up being what was envisioned, particularly for the main focus – the BBC’s 1993 Omnibus documentary ‘The Importance Of Being Ernie’ was widely panned for appearing to cast its subject, Ernie Wise, as being a rather tragic figure, followng the death in 1984 of his lifelong comedy partner Eric Morecambe. However, knowing that Life After Flash is made by a fan, this is not only an affectionate but also respectful piece, and ends up being genuinely life affirming and overwhelmingly positive.

From the basic blurb alone, it sounded as if the documentary would be solely about Jones, showing his post-Flash life. While it would have no doubt been an interesting watch in itself, the finished product is far more than just that – it has a clear line of narrative which goes from the making of the movie, through to where the various actors – surprisingly, not just Jones – are now, and also the continuing legacy of the movie. It’s actually startling to realise that there’s never been a proper ‘making of’ documentary about Flash Gordon, so Life After Flash does an admirable job in filling that conspicuous gap.

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Downs has found all sorts of rarities, from archive TV ads, to behind-the-scenes clips which don’t appear to have seen the light of day since 1980. This documentary is the perfect companion piece to the movie on DVD/Blu-ray, but is so substantial, it does deserve its own standalone release here, rather than being ending up as a special feature on some future reissue of the film. In that sense, it’s somewhat like the Lost In La Mancha to Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. There’s a real treasure trove of material here, and you get the feeling that a lot of this is thanks to the ardent fanbase, which rightly loves the movie so much, and has contributed not only by crowdfunding the production in the first place, but by giving their own time and effort to providing content, from access to celebratory events, to sharing their private collections.

There’s also a plethora of celebrity fans who share their love on camera, such as director Robert Rodriguez (who says that Flash Gordon has inspired him in terms not only of filmmaking, but also music), comedian Rich Fulcher, and musician Jeordie White (A.K.A. Twiggy Ramirez of Marilyn Manson), all of whom show just how much the movie means to them in their own ways. With a project such as this, there was always a risk that it could have ended up being purely fan service, being by the fans, of the fans, and for the fans; however, Downs has managed to do a creditable job in making sure it’s not at all inaccessible for a general audience, and doesn’t exclude them in favour of the nerdcore devotees.

Credit: Life After Flash

She’s also managed to muster a wide and impressive range of participants from the movie, from both behind and in front of the camera, including Peter Wyngarde, Richard O’Brien, and Topol. It’s rather a disappointment that there are a number of noticeable omissions – no sign of either Timothy Dalton, Max von Sydow, or the film’s director Mike Hodges (save for a very brief clip during the closing credits). It’s not clear if this is down to issues of scheduling, budgetary constraints, or the parties having no interest in taking part. However, it would have merely been the cherry on the icing on top of an already overstuffed cake, as there’s just so much material crammed into the feature’s 94 minutes – in fact, the forthcoming DVD and Blu-ray both promise a plethora of further unseen material.

With the project having been in the works for several years, it’s fortunate Downs got to speak to Wyngarde, who died back in January 2018; there’s also a bittersweet tinge when we see a brief ‘talking head’ by Stan ‘The Man’ Lee, having passed on just four months ago, and the affectionate tribute at the opening of Captain Marvel currently reducing audiences to tears and applause. However, the genuine highlight, amongst so many wonderful parts, must naturally be Brian Blessed, who is on good form as spellbinding wit, raconteur and eccentric – all 94 minutes could have just been Blessed talking, and there would’ve been absolutely no complaints here.

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It’s also timely to have a section which focuses on Queen’s contribution, given their current moment in the spotlight again, thanks to Bohemian Rhapsody. You’ve not lived until you’ve been Brian May playing Flash’s theme on a piano, I swear. You get the feeling that there was so much craftsmanship and detail which went into the movie, and the interviewees all seem to have a common complaint: the movie was being hampered by producer Dino De Laurentiis, with the film turning out as well as it did seemingly in spite of him, not because of him. And therein lies a tale which links into the central theme of the movie about what happened to Sam J. Jones afterwards.

It seems that Jones got tangled up in the Hollywood machine, with representatives giving him some spectacularly poor and damaging advice intended to give him some leverage and influence; instead, it ended up with Jones being dismissed by De Laurentiis, with the pickup shots and reshoots being covered by a stand-in, and a voice artiste overdubbing all of Jones’ lines in the movie. He ended up being chewed up and spat out by Hollywood, and meant it not only curtailed plans for a second and third movie, but also Jones’ acting career, to the point where he gave it all up and became a bodyguard (which he still does to this day).

Credit: Life After Flash

However, Jones’ is a true rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story, as – in the third act – he returns resurgent, suitably chastened from his harsh life lessons, and renewed for a return to the spotlight, all thanks to two movies about a taking toy bear. With the impact that Ted and Ted 2 had on Jones’ career, it’s a little surprising that Seth MacFarlane is another omission in the interview stakes; both Jones’ family and friends also hate those movies in view of the way in which they portray Jones, which is all rather understandable given that we find out he’s a devout born again Christian, so the caricature featured there doesn’t bear any resemblance to the man in real life.

However, they shouldn’t be too harsh, as it’s led to a revival of interest in Jones as an actor, all thanks to the fond childhood memories of those now actually calling the shots in the Hollywood system. It’s pointed out in the documentary that it isn’t in fact the curse anymore of ending up being typecast, as it should be a real badge of honour to have a connection to people in any way at all, and with being so fondly-remembered, Jones is actually now in a very fortunate and privileged position, one which you can tell he isn’t taking for granted.

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Having found a second career before his recent reversal of fortune as an actor, it’s a surprise to see that he’s such a devout individual, after finding God and a brand new purpose in life following the support of his second wife. Even for a hardened, embittered old atheist like myself, it’s actually incredibly touching to see Jones’ faith in action, with the positive effects it’s had on him. Life After Flash treats this in a matter-of-fact manner, without any attempt either to sneer or cast judgment on him, instead just telling it like it is, and his joy of life as well as his strong work ethic is actually very inspiring to see, whether or not you happen to be of a religious persuasion.

Flash Gordon may have saved every one of us, but the hardest battle that he’s had to fight is in saving himself, and it’s such a feelgood story to see just how well Jones is  actually doing for himself right now, you really can’t help but be cheered at seeing that, sometimes, nice guys don’t always finish last. Downs has indicated that her next project may be called Life After The Navigator, a similar look at the life of Joey Cramer, who played David in Flight Of The Navigator; on the strength of this, I’d be tempted to pitch in a few quid for any kickstarter, as it looks like it would be a very worthwhile project. In a cynical age, love letters like this don’t come along very often, so we definitely need more of them.

Life After Flash is available now via VOD, and releases on DVD and Blu-ray from 5th April.

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