Synopsis: Arena (An Absurd Notion) is a concept concert video filmed during the course of Duran Duran’s 1984 Sing Blue Silver North American concert tour in support of the album Seven and the Ragged Tiger.
eyelights: the ambition of the project. the scale of the production.
eyesores: the incoherence of the script. the audio mix.
‘Arena (An Absurd Notion)’ is a landmark in Duran Duran’s career. Already famed for their creative music videos, which played incessantly on the day’s music video channels, ‘Arena’ capped it all off while they were at their peak, just before they took a much-needed leave from all the hysteria and commotion that surrounded the group.
It would become one of the last projects that the original line-up did together.
The result of a desire to make a more conceptual concert film, Duran Duran teamed up with up-and-coming director Russell Mulcahy to create a storyline and integrate it to the live footage. The concert footage was filmed during the ‘Sing Blue Silver‘ tour, and was also broadcast in a slightly different cut on US and UK television.
Apparently Mulcahy had in mind that he could use part of this project as a demo for a feature-length motion picture that he would later direct. His demo: the music video for ‘The Wild Boys’, a new single that was integrated into the picture. He couldn’t have possibly have done better: the video got massive exposure upon its release.
As did ‘Arena (An Absurd Notion)’, and its companion soundtrack, the live album ‘Arena’. The film was an incredible success, playing on television and generating huge sales on home video. It was so popular that a ‘Making of’ video was also released, as was a companion book, and two hit singles were culled from the album.
But how does it hold up now, some 30 years later?
First off, it’s important to note that ‘Arena’ is primarily a concert film: a story was contrived into the footage that had already been shot and released. So there are limits to what can be done with the material; it’s not like there are lot of story ideas when your main cast is on stage, performing. Secondly, one has to consider that it was made in 1984.
At the time, ‘Arena’ was a significant production, with sets built on the sprawling 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios to film the supplementary material. There was a large complement of dancers, stunt people and extras assembled for ‘The Wild Boys’, as well as countless costumes and special effects – including some rudimentary animatronics.
For a music video, it was the big time.
But it does show its age. What would have looked cool back in the day sometimes looks ridiculous today (case-in-point, the cheap animatronics and some of the cel animation). Still, fans of post-apocalyptic fare such as ‘The Road Warrior’ would likely enjoy the style of the piece, what with the wild boys themselves being punk-like savages.
The script, however, is confounding; I had a terrible time trying to make sense of it.
Based on the cult Jane Fonda exploitation sci-fi film, ‘Barbarella‘ (from which Duran Duran took their name), it proposes that Dr. Durand himself has traveled 20000 light years away from home, arriving in Earth’s orbit only to find the group misappropriating his name. Upset, he sets out to disrupt their concert and destroy them.
Not much of this is self-evident: the way that this video has been put together, the exposition is a jumbled mess that’s exacerbated by the fact that Dr. Durand looks nothing like he did in ‘Barbarella’ – even if he’s played by the same actor. One isn’t sure if it’s meant to be a sequel, is inspired by, or is simply an homage to the original.
The ‘Arena’ DVD is broken down into chapters (mostly) based on the songs that the band is performing on stage. It’s hard to discuss it as a concert film, because much of it is interrupted by Dr. Durand’s shenanigans throughout. In fact, some of the concert performances are largely on the cutting room floor (much of it is featured in ‘As the Lights Go Down‘).
(nota bene: the ratings reflect the concert material, not the interstitial film bits)
1. The Return of Duran Duran (the story of Dr. Durand and the band): This is the expository section of the film, which begins with ramshackle footage of planets, space, clips of Duran Duran videos, footage from ‘Barbarella’ and soundbytes basically chucked together. It’s unclear that the astronaut we’re seeing piloting a space craft to Earth is Dr. Durand himself, given how little he looks like him. All we know is that he’s traveled 20000 light years, that he’s accompanied by a strange creature on stilts, and that he’s upset that Duran Duran are receiving so much adulation in his stead. This segment ends with Durand shouting “Now into battle, to the arena!’. If anything is certain, it’s that this villain is going to cause Duran Duran some trouble.
2. Is There Something I Should Know?: After declaring war on Duran Duran (so to speak), Dr. Durand sends a trio of armoured dwarves out to the concert. It is now made clear that Dr. Durand is backstage or inside the arena’s guts somewhere. His three minions make their way under the arena floor and, in an attempt to lift a panel that would grant them access to the concert, they propel a teenaged girl into the air. The crowd doesn’t seem to notice or care. Throughout, there’s concert footage (it’s the same performance as ‘As the Lights Go Down’, but many of the shots are different angles), but it’s constantly interrupted by the film. In fact, the song doesn’t even end because we cut back to the villains before the band wraps it up. 8.0
3. Hungry Like the Wolf: Much of this song is similar to the ‘ATLGD’ version: the band jumps at screen at the beginning, the woman from the video and the tiger are crawling about the concert floor, and security is called to find them. The key differences are that everything is being watched by Dr. Durand on some monitors, there’s lots of split-screen of the band, and there is no audio drops when security runs down the hallway (I guess it was a stylistic choice for ‘ATLGD’). At one point, Simon goes to the set at the back of the stage and there’s an audio bit of Dr. Durand saying “There’s no escape!”. It doesn’t make sense, though, ’cause Simon’s back on stage in the blink of an eye. 8.25
4. Union of the Snake: For this part, Dr. Durand tells his minions to “Proceed with energy extraction”. He then sends the dwarves out to take a lift to the concert floor and try to nab a girl. Why they didn’t take the lift in the first place is beyond me (see “Is There Something I Should Know?”). Sadly the audio for the song is buried under all the Dr. Durand stuff. Towards the end, Dr. Durand shoots beams that sap the strength of some of the concert goers. They are then taken to an infirmary, but the concert continues and no one cares of notices aside for the paramedics. 8.0
5. Save a Prayer: During this song, Dr. Durand watches footage of Barbarella (taken from the film, naturally) and vows he’ll be hers forever. This strangely echoes the original film except that Durand looks different here. Meanwhile, John is hanging about backstage, eyeing a female fan. Why he’s not on stage at that moment, I have no clue. Unfortunately, while he’s distracted, the girl is kidnapped by Durand’s minions and is caged in his underground lair. Durand monitors the situation as she is hung from the ceiling, with the stilted beast prowling about. 8.0
6. The Wild Boys: This song was recorded specifically for the film and album; it is not live nor was it featured in ‘ATLGD’. It was a massive hit. This is the 7-minute version of the video.
For some reason, it begins with flashes of what’s to come. Then we’re on a large empty set, aside for rows of school desks with a few men crouched on them. Simon is on a monitor next to a robotic head, after which the men start throwing the desks around and a mysterious man in a cape prowls around ominously. Then fire bursts out of openings in the floor and the wild boys shoot out from these openings.
For reasons unexplained, Simon is now attached to a windmill whose blades slowly spin into a pool of water below. Simon sings along as he’s repeatedly dunked into the water with the camera providing a P.O.V. perspective. Meanwhile, the wild boys choreograph some primal dances. There are tons of them. There’s also a wild boy flying about on a winged contraption. Another spews fire. There are also wild boys with (poorly) animated tails and serpent tongues.
A huge gust of wind comes and blows the wild boys into the air. Somehow, Simon falls off the windmill and into the water, where a creepy monster (not unlike a ‘Ghoulie’) awaits. Simon escapes from water with the unexpected help of a winged wild boy, while Andy is fighting off wild boys with his guitar.
The whole things is post-apocalyptic, very ‘Mad Max’. This is a massive set and choreography; it’s pretty impressive, especially given the era. Without a doubt, this is the highlight of the show. At the end, Dr. Durand calls Duran Duran imposters and proclaims no one may take his name. Yeah, yeah. Whatever. 9.0
7. Planet Earth: After shouting “Feel the fury of the Matmos” (which was actually underground slime in ‘Barbarella’). Dr. Durand shoots energy beams on crowd members. I’m not sure what his ultimate intention was, but one of the concertgoers redirected the beams with a pocket mirror. Dr. Durand and his minions succumb to this positronic ray. Footage from ‘Barbarella’ plays, showing Dr. Duran saying scornfully: “Idiots!”. This segment swaps between black and white and colour, for some reason. Also the audio’s not great, as the crowd drowns out the music a little bit. 8.0
8. Careless Memories: I don’t know why but, suddenly, Durand’s minion are in a panic. Outside, there’s a black helicopter that’s monitoring the concert and someone aboard wonders what is going on. The song itself starts heavy, with a nice drum and bass rhythm. Sadly the footage doesn’t always synch up with the music. It’s still a great song. 8.5
9. Girls on Film: Dr. Durand starts to target more concertgoers while the dwarves are dancing around with the crowd, trying to pass unnoticed. Then they kidnap a girl and drag her back to their lair in a net. Meanwhile, there’s footage of a roller derby. Then Simon gets the crowd to clap to an extended jam and confetti comes down from ceiling. As the song ends, Dr. Durand prepares to dump his captives upside down in murky tanks with weird humanoids in them. 8.5
10. The Reflex: Dr. Durand interferes with the concert, making the band and the audience’s ears hurt. Then he cuts the power, freezing everyone in place, and fast forward and rewinds them playfully. Some of the kids escape, break into his lair and help the captive girls out. The kids get attacked by the stilt creature but deflect a fireball with a Duran Duran poster. Inexplicably, things start to fall apart, as Dr. Durand whines “I only wanted to be loved!”. Poor thing. This was a remixed version of the song – and, although I like remixes, it was too much; this one took away from the original. 7.5
11. Rio: Before “Rio” some end credits roll. Then the band is back on the stage. Unhampered by Dr. Durand, now that his whole plan has fallen apart, they perform the song in its entirety. As in the ‘ATLGD’ concert film, large balloons are tossed around the arena, but this time it’s suggested (via some audio bytes of their voices) that the dwarves are inside. Um, sure. Who knows why, but there it is. 8.0
And that’s it. That’s the story of how Dr. Durand failed so miserably at stopping Duran Duran from doing their show – let alone preventing them from using his name. It’s amazing to see just how inept this version of Durand is. Not only is his plan simple-minded, but he also engages the services of the least capable crew possible. It’s no wonder that he failed.
Most of ‘Arena (An Absurd Notion)’ doesn’t make much sense from a storytelling standpoint, but let’s face it: ‘Barbarella’ didn’t always make sense either – so it’s likely very fitting, actually. I suppose that the filmmakers did the best that they could at integrating a storyline into the pre-filmed concert footage; there wasn’t much flexibility on that end.
The only way to circumvent these issues would have been to pre-plan the integration of Duran Duran into the storyline, giving them roles and speaking parts. I’m not sure why this wasn’t done. Perhaps the idea for this concert film came too late in the game, at a time when Duran were excessively busy and couldn’t divert their attention from touring and promoting?
The key issue is that the final result doesn’t hold the replay value that a proper concert film might have. Thankfully, ‘As the Lights Go Down’ is available on DVD now. ‘Arena (An Absurd Notion)’ is one of those programmes that probably worked best with a certain age group and in a particular place in time – something that simply can’t be recreated now.
‘Arena’ remains enjoyable, though, for what it is: a surrealistic sci-fi concert film. It doesn’t work as a motion picture, and it doesn’t work as a concert, but it’s an exciting, visually-arresting film backed by a genius soundtrack. It’s no wonder that is was all the rage at the time. Oh, sure, it’s extremely dated and unsophisticated, but that’s also part of its charm.
This is undoubtedly a must-see, if not a must-own, for Duran Duran fans.
Date of viewing: March 2, 2014