For the past, oh, several months, I’ve been loosely planning on doing one of my Duranalysis thingymabobs on Arena (An Absurd Notion), Duran Duran’s 1984 Russell Mulcahy-directed science fiction-themed concert film. On the surface, it would seem tailor-made for a Duranalysis, due to all the Duran-centric weirdness flying about, but I’ve never quite managed to whip up the necessary enthusiasm.
Here’s Arena in a nutshell: Footage of the boys performing in concert is interspersed with a bizarre narrative in which Milo O’Shea gamely reprises his role as the band’s namesake, the evil intergalactic scientist Durand Durand from the 1968 cult classic Barbarella. In Arena, Durand Durand arrives on Earth and, with the aid of his requisite coterie of mutant dwarf minions, schemes to wreak terrible vengeance on the boys for stealing his name.
Amongst other nonsense, one of these aforementioned schemes involves capturing a cluster of lingerie-clad roller-derby dolls and dangling them over tanks filled with vicious mutant creatures.
Meanwhile, in a wholly unrelated plotline, a couple of cyborgs get it on in a pool of green goop.
Clearly there’s a lot of interesting stuff here. Please note: “interesting” is not a synonym for “good.” While sometimes awesome, Arena is also sometimes terrible, or incomprehensible, or tedious, or some combination of the above. Surely, though, I should be able to scrap together a Duranalysis from all of this.
Here’s the problem: In Arena the Durans themselves only* appear in the concert footage and in the extended version of the “Wild Boys” video, which leaves us with vast Duran-free stretches. At no point do the boys ever interact with Durand Durand or his minions (Durand’s nefarious plans are eventually thwarted by a spunky group of fans), and that’s no good for my purposes. Look, if I couldn’t be bothered to do a Duranalysis of the stylish, sexy video for “The Chauffer” due to its lack of Durans, why would I willingly wade into the murky waters of Arena?
*Notable exception: The exquisite John Taylor appears in one brief additional scene, in which he takes a mid-concert break to slurp down a Heineken and leer at a cute fan whilst looking sweaty and extra-smoldering. This is unquestionably Arena’s finest moment.
So here’s a compromise: This Duranalysis will focus on “The Making of Arena”, the hour-long featurette included as a bonus feature on the Arena DVD, which is comprised of a bunch of cool behind-the-scenes footage padded out with interviews with the boys. First up is this impossibly gorgeous, glamorous, ludicrous creature:
Hi, Nick Rhodes! You’re looking especially glossy and fabulous today. Hey, what’s in your glass? Lychees? Small boiled onions? Pickled baby heads? (Could be just ice cubes, I suppose, but since we’re talking about Nick, I prefer to imagine it’s something weird and exotic and vaguely off-putting.)
Nick launches into a lecture about the process of filming their performances during the Sing Blue Silver tour, which later became the backbone of Arena. Nick’s a sharp cookie and he knows his stuff—he manages to work “Louma crane” seamlessly into a sentence, and you can’t say the same for just any pop star—but no matter how many times I watch this, my attention drifts away from whatever he’s going on about. This is partly because of his languid, sleepy speaking voice (if you’ve never heard Nick speak, think “spoiled English schoolboy” and you’ll just about have it), and partly because… I mean, just look at him. He’s so shimmery. It’s hard to focus on anything else.
Most of this featurette is devoted specifically to the making of the epic “Wild Boys” video, which is the clear showpiece of Arena. Simon Le Bon discusses the genesis of the idea for the video:
“I remember sitting on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean…”—you know, probably a good 25% of Simon’s recollections start out this exact same way. “It occurred to us—I don’t know if this was myself or Russell first—that it’d be good if the band were seen in danger, in jeopardy, and also in pain, as a kind of metaphor to being in a band and forced to perform. So there’s somebody maybe, say, in bondage, but being forced to perform.”
Performing in bondage. Good start. I’m totally with you thus far, Simon.
Is that painting on the wall behind Simon awesome or ghastly? Discuss.
There’s a lot of footage of Simon on the set of “Wild Boys,” with particular attention paid to the sequence where he’s strapped to that ramshackle windmill, his head dunking into the lagoon upon every rotation. Even though the whole contraption looks rickety as hell, Simon is a trooper. He raises one cautionary flag—“I’m worried about my feet coming off the bar. Could actually strangle myself”—then cheerfully allows his head to be submerged in the water, again and again and again.
Ah, yes. Here we are. We’ve reached the whole hilarious drama with Nick’s “Wild Boys” costume, and yes, I’ve already linked to this segment before on this site, but that’s because it’s just the most awesome thing ever, that’s all. So Nick goes to check on his costume, and instead of a cool head-to-toe leather ensemble like the ones sported by his fellow Durans, he’s presented with a ratty felt cape that looks like something the wolf barfed up after he ate Red Riding Hood.
This doesn’t go over terribly well with the glittery Crown Prince of Awesomeness. Being a chipper and resourceful little pixie, he plops himself down on the floor of the workroom and starts gluing a bunch of sparkly crap all over a leather jacket (“How many more jewels can one possibly fit on one collar?”), fashioning himself a new costume. Of his handiwork, he chirps happily, “It’s actually a camp Mad Max.” Only Nick could make that claim and: a) be deadly serious, b) be totally accurate, and c) intend it as the highest possible compliment.
There’s no clear shot of Nick’s modified ensemble in the finished “Wild Boys” video, so let’s take a look at a publicity photo to get the full effect:
Awesome. Nicely done, Mr. Rhodes. You’re the prettiest post-apocalyptic warrior of them all.
Much of the “Making of Arena” featurette is devoted to footage of the dancers from Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys” video rehearsing their routines. While this section is a little short on Durans, I have no real complaints. Toned, pantsless men who do high kicks and front flips are always fun to watch.
This poor young dancer was caught on camera at this unfortunate midpoint of his makeup job:
The featurette goes into some detail on the robotics required to move the disembodied animatronic head in “Wild Boys.” Many of the visual effects in Arena haven’t fared well over time, but that head? Highly effective. Still creepy as hell.
If “The Making of Arena” has a flaw, it’s that it’s sadly short on footage of beautiful John Taylor, who doesn’t appear in any of the interview segments. We’ll have to content ourselves with his one big moment here: John, who has dialed his personal skeeze factor straight up to eleven, describes his upcoming “Wild Boys” scene to an unidentified woman standing off-camera: “I’m chained to that Mercedes, being flashed with images of naked women and other things I love in life.”
Naked women? Really, John? While that scene in “Wild Boys” where John writhes around in chains is seared into my memory, I sure don’t remember him being forced to look at images of naked women. Let’s take a quick look back at the video to confirm:
I think Russell Mulcahy pulled a fast one on you, John.
Hey, remember how Andy Taylor pretty much stole the whole show in the Sing Blue Silver tour documentary? Remember how bright-eyed and cheeky and full of personality he was back then?
Here’s Andy being interviewed for the “The Making of Arena”:
On the “Wild Boys” set, Andy gets strapped into a harness up in the scaffolding of the underground fortress. He rhapsodizes about the experience: “I wore jeans! I’ve never worn denims in my life in anything to do with Duran Duran. I think it’s one of the rules we made, you know, no one wears jeans.”
He seems pretty stoked about this relatively small event, but if you put it into the proper context, you can see this was kind of a big deal. Here’s their former manager Paul Berrow, as quoted in Steve Malins’s Duran Duran Notorious: The Unauthorised Biography, talking about Andy’s initial audition: “He was in jeans, more early 1970s rock I suppose, not the glam rock side of it. There were doubts, I think Andy knows that. Nick in particular was thinking, ‘Oh, God.’ He’s a bit of a snob when it comes to rock. Nick’s not rock at all and the wit was streaming out of him on the issue of what Andy was wearing.” Combine that with this quote from Roger Taylor in a 2011 interview with Paper Magazine: “Although Andy did join the group with a pair of dungarees on, we soon dealt with that!”
Hey, Nick and Roger? I’m feeling kind of Team Andy on this one. Wearing jeans appears to be really, really important to him. Just look at how happy he seems, bound up there in the scaffolding. Maybe if you’d relaxed your fervent anti-denim stance a notch, Andy wouldn’t have quit the band, twice.
Speaking of Roger, here he is, talking about filming the part in “Wild Boys” where he dangles from his own little jet-powered hot-air balloon: “It felt quite dangerous when we were doing it, but I’m sure it was very safe. When I was first in the balloon thing, people kept reassuring me that it was actually very safe, it was sort of hanging from wires from the ceiling. On the other hand, as much as people assure you, you always sort of have those doubts.”
In his interview segments, Roger appears very sweet and sensible, posing in a clean, sunny room with flowers in the window, flashing his new wedding band while looking wholesome and sane. Within months of this, Roger would walk away from the madness and mayhem of Duran Duran to lead a quiet, reclusive life in the English countryside, where nobody would ever dangle him from a jet-powered hot-air balloon again.
Throughout Arena, Durand Durand hobbles precariously around an underground fortress on tall stilts connected to his legs and arms. And then someone jumps on his back. And then he gets set on fire. Both of these stunts go horribly, predictably wrong, leading to: a) injured stunt people, and b) total validation of Roger’s quiet doubts about the safety of all this.
Let’s give Simon the last word:
“I wouldn’t say the project turned out as I had imagined it would turn out. What we’ve got is something very, very different… But it doesn’t mean that… (pause) I’m not… (pause) proud of it, because it’s something very special.”
He almost sounds like he means it.