Duranalysis: The Making of Arena, Part One

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 little 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 twice 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.

This is getting too lengthy for a single post, so Part Two will continue in the next section.


details-later said…
Nick launching into a lecture and parlaying his magical pixie ways! Gold! And yes, discovering Nick had this basso voice so much later into my Duran fandom was a massive surprise!

And yes, watching the Arena thing was not fun, not Duran enough — all that magical pixie work and Louma crane action just didn't go well in the end!
Morgan Richter said…
That clip with Nick bedazzling his jacket is pretty much the perfect litmus test for sounding out one's feelings about Duran Duran. Anyone who doesn't see the inherent awesomeness in it is probably not going to be a big fan of the magical pixie.

Oh, lordy, Nick's voice... it still comes as a shock to hear that low, drawling, nasal monotone coming from this tiny, fragile wisp of a thing. At some point, he must've done a complete overhaul of his speaking voice (and I'm not talking about losing his Birmingham accent), because he sounds much less nasal now, but it's still surprisingly low.

Arena's such a disappointment, because they had both the budget and the ideas to do something really awesome -- it just was executed poorly. If the boys had just been fully incorporated into the whole framing device with Durand Durand (stick Simon on roller skates in the roller-derby scenes! Dangle John over the mutant creature-filled tank!), that would have been a huge step in the right direction.
khanada said…
god, i hate arena. and can i just say something that bugs me about it? it's kind of a sequel of sorts to barbarella, which takes place in the future (the year 40,000 or something i think). arena obviously takes place in the present, so 1983-1984. that's such a stupid error there that annoys me, and i don't even like barbarella or arena. if i want to watch the live stuff, i usually just watch as the lights go down.
Morgan Richter said…
Khanada, Arena frustrates me because there's some potential there to do something really cool, and they just didn't take it far enough. It's sloppy -- I mean, they could have just added a bit explaining that Durand Durand went back in time, for example, to clear up any confusion about the timeline, but it's just careless overall. Some good ideas, but they mostly go nowhere. (And I know all the Durans were badly overextended during this time, what with touring and shooting videos, and didn't have the time to dedicate to this, but it really crippled Arena that the boys themselves weren't involved in the framing device.)

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