There is something chilling in the way David Lynch introduces Duran Duran, the subject of his new concert film. Out of focus, in black and white, Lynch appears onscreen with the exaggerated mock enthusiasm of a carnival huckster who has been on the job for six hours. It is almost as if he is willing the film to be good by smiling wildly and exaggerating his enunciation as he briefly mentions how excited he is to work with the band.
Originally a live webcast as part of American Express’ Unstaged campaign that matches bands with directors (The Killers/Werner Herzog, Pharrell Williams/Spike Lee, Gary Oldman/Maroon 5) to collaborate on a hybrid film and concert experience, both Lynch and Duran Duran have since gone back into their studios to, respectively, upgrade the imagery and audio for a theatrical release of the project. Ultimately, however, the result is a concert film and, like the vast majority of concert films before it, the basic foundations of the form are in place: musicians performing onstage and a director trying to find a way to recapture the concert experience and make watching them on film equal to or greater than seeing them live.
Over the years, filmmakers and musicians have attempted to expand beyond the confines of the genre. From the “fantasy” sequences awkwardly inserted into Led Zepellin’s “The Song Remains The Same” in the ’70’s to Metallica’s more recent “Through The Never” which attempted to set a narrative film in and around a concert, directors have been looking for a way to something more with their project. Alek Keshishian’s “Madonna: Truth or Dare” not only captured the performer’s live show at the peak of her career, it was also a fascinating look at what it meant to be a celebrity in the late 20th Century. Jonathan Demme's last film was the Justin Timberlake concert documentary for Netflix but he had made numerous films about musicians who inspired him, shooting 3 or 4 films about Neil Young, the classic Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense” and, wait, really(?) what’s that… his own contribution to the Amex series “Kenny Chesney: Unstaged”
Duran Duran, still active more than 30 years after their biggest hits, seem up to the task. Never critical favorites, they seem to have accepted and matured into their roles of aging New Wavers refusing to become an oldies band. They seamlessly integrate their songs from the ’80’s and ’90’s into the mix of current material in such a way that they seem almost contemporary. Either this is a band whose sound has never changed or they have found a way to tweak the formula over the years so that a casual listener might not be able to tell if a song like their rousing final encore “Girls On Film” came out in 1984 or 2014.
Lynch, on the other hand, seems to sleepwalk through the project —- not that, given the parameters of the genre, he really has many options. In his first full-length feature film since the 2006 curiosity “Inland Empire,” Lynch primarily embellishes the action onstage with super-imposed surrealistic or downright silly imagery with very little rhyme or reason.
Throughout the concert, the band invites several guests to the stage for a song or two. Producer/guitarist Mark Ronson gets credited as the ‘architect’ of the dazzling, extended James Bond musical tribute that serves as the intro to the Duran’s own chart-topping Bond theme song “A View To A Kill.” Later, Beth Ditto of the group Gossip, herself born in the same year the band released it’s first single, bounds onstage for a lively performance of the 1988 hit “Notorious” and gushes to the crowd “What a fucking dream” as she exits when the song is over.
|Lynch says that he had wild dreams while listening to the band’s music but, in the finished film, those dreams manifest in swirling images of dust and clouds or jagged lines the appear over and frequently obstruct the shots of the musicians.|
Employing his talented “Mullholland Drive” and “Lost Highway” cinematographer Peter Deming (beloved by many for his acrobatic and inventive camera work in Sam Raimi’s 1982 cult classic “Evil Dead II”) the film is shot in murky black and white with fluid, elegant camera movement. By abstracting color, Lynch establishes a canvas to build upon but it also distances viewers of the film from the bands presumably more colorful stage show shot at L.A.’s Mayan Theater in 2011.
Spinning bicycle wheels appear over the band during “Rio.” Elsewhere, a parade of topless Barbie dolls with Duran Duran pasties show up. Later still, tapping spatulas and hot dogs flipping on a grill accompany “Come Undone.” For a song like their ’90’s hit “Ordinary World,” it might be reasonable to expect something extraordinary to embellish the tune but Lynch returns to a theme of industrial gears and machinery that, by this point in the film, has already worn out its welcome. For a performance of their first hit “Planet Earth,” Lynch goes with — guess what? — a spinning globe.
In the end, “Unstaged: Duran Duran” is not going to satisfy film-lovers eager for a new David Lynch film and, even though the band shows up in fine form, it is unlikely to satisfy their fans. Let’s face it, the “Unstaged” series is a thinly veiled Amex commercial. DD singer Simon LeBon thanks the credit card giant during their curtain call and, a moment later, when he calls the director to the stage for acknowledgement, Lynch does not join them onstage, is nowhere to found and LeBon has to to awkwardly suggest that he is off doing something else — a scenario that speaks volumes about this project.