Review: ‘Duran Duran: A Hollywood High,’ starring Duran Duran

November 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Duran Duran: A Hollywood High.” Pictured from left to right: John Taylor, Roger Taylor, Simon LeBon, Anna Ross, Erin Stevenson, Dom Brown and Nick Rhodes. (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“Duran Duran: A Hollywood High”

Directed by Gavin Elder, Vincent Adam Paul and George Scott

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles in March 2022, the documentary film “Duran Duran: A Hollywood High” features British pop/rock band Duran Duran performing the group’s first rooftop concert.

Culture Clash: In the documentary interviews, members of the band talk about the culture shock they experienced the first time they visited and performed in Los Angeles.

Culture Audience:  Besides the obvious target audience of Duran Duran fans,“Duran Duran: A Hollywood High” will appeal primarily to fans of pop music artists who had their biggest hits in the 1980s.

A scene from “Duran Duran: A Hollywood High.” Pictured from left to right: Roger Taylor, John Taylor, Anna Ross, Erin Stevenson, Simon LeBon, Dom Brown and Nick Rhodes. (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

Even though the British pop/rock band Duran Duran is mostly known for the band’s hits from the 1980s, the concert documentary “Duran Duran: A Hollywood High” is an admirable showcase of a still-vibrant Duran Duran performing songs from the 1980s to the 2020s. This 75-minute documentary is good but not outstanding or comprehensive. Avid fans of Duran Duran will consider this movie a must-see. Everyone else might watch out of curiosity to see the 2022 version of Duran Duran and what kind of live performance the band has to offer, 41 years after Duran Duran’s 1981 self-titled debut album was released.

Directed by Gavin Elder, Vincent Adam Paul and George Scott, “Duran Duran: A Hollywood High” at least has a unique concert setting for Duran Duran, because it shows the band performing its very first rooftop concert. The documentary was filmed in March 2022, at The Aster (a hotel and members’ club) in Los Angeles’ Hollywood district. The concert took place months before The Aster officially opened in October 2022. About 200 to 250 people were in the audience of this concert.

This particular concert location was chosen because The Aster is across the street from the iconic Capitol Records building, whose famous circular shape is designed to look like stacked vinyl records on a turntable. Capitol Records was the U.S. record label for Duran Duran from 1981 to 1999, the years when the band had its biggest hits. During the concert film, there are several sweeping shots of the band performing with the Capitol Records building as a backdrop.

The documentary begins with an approximately 15-minute introduction of background information (a mixture of archival footage and new footage) explaining Duran Duran’s history with Los Angeles. Duran Duran formed in 1978, in Birmingham, England. Bass player John Taylor and keyboardist Nick Rhodes co-founded the band; drummer Roger Taylor (no relation to John Taylor) joined in 1979; and lead singer Simon LeBon joined in 1980. Roger Taylor quit in 1986, and John Taylor quit in 1997, but both Taylors have been part of Duran Duran’s reunited lineup since 2001.

The documentary very briefly mentions Andy Taylor (no relation to John Taylor and Roger Taylor), who was Duran Duran’s guitarist from 1980 to 1986, and from 2001 to 2006. Since 2006, Dominic “Dom” Brown has been Duran Duran’s touring and recording guitarist. In the documentary, Rhodes has high praise for American guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, who worked with Duran Duran from 1986 to 2001. Rhodes says meeting Cuccurullo for the first time in Los Angeles was the most important and impactful meeting that Duran Duran ever had in Los Angeles.

In the documentary, Roger Taylor says in an exclusive interview that his experience of visiting Los Angeles for the first time in 1981 was almost like being in another world, because Los Angeles is so different from Birmingham, England. He mentions that sunshine and palm trees “are in real short supply” in Birmingham. And he remembers what his first impression was of Los Angeles: “I thought I’d arrived in paradise.”

Rhodes comments that when he thinks of Los Angeles, he always thinks of the Sunset Strip and Los Angeles’ obsession with fame. Two iconic Sunset Strip buildings are mentioned in this introduction: The Roxy nightclub (the first venue in Los Angeles that Duran Duran played during the band’s 1981 U.S. tour) and the now-defunct Continental Hyatt House, which was nicknamed the Continental Riot House, because it was a notorious party spot for rock stars and other celebrities. (The hotel has been renamed several times and has been known as the Andaz West Hollywood since 2009.) In true rock-star fashion, Duran Duran was expelled from the Continental Hyatt for some troublemaking antics during the band’s first U.S. tour. John Taylor, who has lived in Los Angeles since the 1990s, comments that Los Angeles is “a very uplifting place to be.”

LeBon says that New York City and Los Angeles are so different from each other, they’re like separate planets. He compares New York City to being like the grit of punk rock, and Los Angeles to being like the decadence of rock and roll. LeBon shares a vivid first-impression memory of Los Angeles having oil rig machines and an immense number of billboards on the Sunset Strip.

“I’d never seen so much commercial advertising,” he recalls. LeBon also says that Nina Simone was invited to Duran Duran’s first Los Angeles show, but she couldn’t attend. However, she sent him a hand-written note with an apology that she couldn’t be there and to wish Duran Duran the best. LeBon says he still has the note, and it’s one of his most-treasured possessions.

In addition to the documentary having archival footage of Duran Duran in Los Angeles (including the band’s 1984 press conference at Magic Castle Hotel and the band’s 1993 ceremony to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), “Duran Duran: A Hollywood High” includes a brief new clip of Rhodes talking with music producer David Kershenbaum, who remixed the band’s 1982 album “Rio,” which became Duran Duran’s international breakthrough album after the album was remixed. Rhodes expresses gratitude to Kershenbaum for playing a pivotal role in Duran Duran’s career. Kershenbaum comments on working with Duran Duran in the early 1980s, “It was a magical time.”

If all of this sounds like the documentary is on a nostalgia trip, think again. The concert, which is the majority of “Duran Duran: A Hollywood High,” has a range of Duran Duran songs from the 1980s to tracks from the band’s 2021 album “Future Past.” Clad in black and white outfits, Duran Duran (accompanied by backup singers Anna Ross and Erin Stevenson) perform a setlist that’s not really a greatest-hits collection but more like a hodgepodge of Duran Duran songs from the 1980s, 1990s and the early 21st century.

The 12 songs performed in the documentary are (in order):

  • “A View to a Kill” (1985)
  • “Invisible” (2021)
  • “All of You” (2021)
  • “Notorious” (1986)
  • “Come Undone” (1993)
  • “Give It All Up” (2021)
  • “Pressure Off” (2015)
  • “White Lines” (1995)
  • “Anniversary” (2021)
  • “Ordinary World” (1993)
  • “Tonight United” (2021)
  • “Hungry Like the Wolf” (1982)

The concert begins with a lot of great energy, but it really starts to hit its stride when Duran Duran performs “Notorious.” Backup singers Ross and Stevenson get their moments to shine with solo refrains in songs (Ross on “Come Undone,” Stevenson on “Give It All Up”), while guitarist Brown has a standout moment with his soloing in “Ordinary World.” Because the stage is so small, John Taylor, LeBon and Brown don’t do a lot of running around back and forth and basically stay in the same positions on the stage.

The documentary’s cinematography stays mainly focused on stage, with a fair balance of wide shots and close-ups of the band members. Any glimpses of the audience are very brief, so as not to distract the documentary viewers from what’s happening on stage. There are multiple shots of keyboardist Rhodes, a longtime photographer, taking photos and videos on his phone from his vantage point behind the keyboards. The movie’s sound editing and sound mixing get the job done well enough, but nothing in this documentary is exceptional enough to be award-worthy.

The concert’s energy level is at its peak with Duran Duran’s blistering cover version of Melle Mel’s “White Lines” that the band turns into a stellar dance-rock party song. The band’s poignant rendition of “Ordinary World” is an example of why this ballad is a timeless Duran Duran classic. “Tonight United” and fan fave “Hungry Like the Wolf” were among the other standout performances. The main drawback to the documentary is that it seems too short, considering all the beloved Duran Duran songs that could have been in the movie but aren’t.

The vocals of many lead singers of rock bands usually don’t get better with age, but LeBon’s voice as a live performer has better tone and control than it did in the 1980s. LeBon, Roger Taylor, John Taylor and Rhodes are still solid and stylish performers, but understandably not as flashy and prone to doing the expected rock-star stage moves that were part of Duran Duran’s act in the 1980s. In other words, Duran Duran is aging gracefully and can still deliver a concert that’s worthy of the band’s memorable songs and unique sound.

Abramorama in association with Fathom Events released “Duran Duran: A Hollywood High” for a limited engagement in U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2022.

Review: ‘The Sparks Brothers,’ starring Ron Mael and Russell Mael

July 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Anna Webber / Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers”

Directed by Edgar Wright

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Sparks Brothers” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American) discussing the career and influence of the American experimental rock/pop duo Sparks, including Sparks members Russell Mael and Ron Mael.

Culture Clash: The highs and lows of Sparks’ career included the Mael brothers’ sibling rivalry; relocating to England during a pivotal time in the duo’s career; parting ways with filmmaker Tim Burton on a movie musical that was supposed to be a big comeback for Sparks; and dealing with the fickle nature of the music business.

Culture Audience: Aside from die-hard fans of Sparks, “The Sparks Brothers” will appeal mostly to people who are nostalgic or curious about influential pop/rock musicians who never became superstars.

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Jake Polonsky/Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary director Edgar Wright makes it abundantly clear that he’s a massive fan of the pop/rock duo Sparks, so this film is more of a tribute than a well-rounded biography. At 140 minutes long, “The Sparks Brothers” can be an endurance test for people who aren’t die-hard Sparks enthusiasts. And since the documentary only interviews people who are either fans of Sparks or have worked with Sparks, the non-stop praise for Sparks can be a bit repetitive. However, the documentary is a fascinating look at the longevity of Sparks and the brotherly dynamics of Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael.

“The Sparks Brothers,” whose exclusive interview footage was filmed in black and white, is a documentary that makes some attempt to not completely follow the typical film biography format of mixing archival footage with new footage that was filmed exclusively for the documentary. Sparks is known as an experimental and offbeat act that never hit superstar mainstream status. And so, there are moments in the film that are nods to the quirky image of Sparks.

For example, director Wright can sometimes be heard talking to the Mael brothers off-camera in a cheeky manner to make a joke or set up a sight gag. When he asks the Ron and Russell why they decided to do an authorized documentary at this time in their lives, older brother Ron says, “We didn’t want to do a standard documentary full of talking heads.” Russell adds, “It would become too dry.” And then two buckets of water are thrown on the brothers.

It’s a facetious moment, because this documentary is actually full of talking heads—so much so that numerous people’s comments about Sparks take up at least 40% of the movie. Some of the best moments of the documentary, which tells the Sparks story in chronological order, is near the beginning, when it reveals photos and details about the early years of Ron and Russell being musicians.

Ron (who was born in 1945 in Santa Monica, California) and Russell Mael (who was born in 1948 in Culver City, California) are the only children of Meyer and Miriam Mael. Meyer was a commercial painter, graphic designer and caricaturist, who tragically died when Ron was 11 and Russell was 8. Miriam was a librarian. Ron and Russell were raised primarily in Pacific Palisades (an affluent suburb of Los Angeles), and the brothers performed in talent shows when they were school children.

Ron says that these talent shows were the first experiences that he and Russell had in getting a taste of the “addicting” thrill of affecting an audience. People unfamiliar with the Mael brothers’ teen years might be surprised to find out from this documentary that Russell (who’s known for his thin physique) was the quarterback of his high school football team. Russell says that he got the same adrenaline rush from playing in football games that he later got when he performed on stage as an entertainer. The Mael brothers say that the 1955 dramatic film “Blackboard Jungle” was a huge influence on them as children.

Ron and Russell attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where they started to play in rock bands that never really went anywhere beyond the local music scene. Two of those bands were Moonbaker Abbey and the Urban Renewal Projects. The Mael brothers say they first started getting serious about music when they began working with Earle Mankey, a founding member of Halfnelson, the band whose name was later changed to Sparks. Sparks’ 1971 eponymous debut album was originally titled “Halfnelson.” Mankey is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

At UCLA, Ron and Russell both studied film, which would influence the types of music videos that they made and their tendency to sometimes reinvent themselves with various images and costumes. But throughout their career, one image of the band remained true and constant: Russell as the extroverted lead singer (who was also a heartthrob in Sparks’ heyday) and Ron as the introverted keyboardist/songwriter/producer.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Ron had private struggles with being overshadowed by Russell, even though Ron was the one creating the band’s songs. It’s a common situation with musical duos and groups, because the lead singer is usually the one who gets most of the attention. But adding in sibling rivalry makes it a more emotionally complicated issue. Someone can stop working with a sibling, but that sibling will still be a family member.

Russell describes the early years of developing his stage persona as trying to emulate Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger and The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. “I was off by a few thousand miles,” he quips. The Mael brothers say other musical influences on Sparks were French New Wave bands. Given the brothers’ background in studying film, it’s not surprising that French New Wave in music and film had an effect on them, because there’s a very European style to the Mael brothers’ art.

Becoming a superstar act was never Sparks’ goal, but this documentary makes it clear that Ron and Russell Mael have wanted enough commercial success to be famous and to be wealthy enough to able to self-fund their projects in case no companies or investors were interested. There’s no question that Sparks has a very devoted fan base, but this documentary wants to bestow “legendary” status on Sparks. It’s a description that gives the movie a very fan-worship tone that exaggerates how far Sparks’ influence really went, compared to other non-mainstream arists who influenced a wider variety of people.

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary gives a comprehensive overview of the Sparks album discography, up until 2020, when the movie was completed. There’s a mention at the end of the film about the 2021 movie musical “Annette” (directed by Leos Carax), which features original music by Sparks, as well as the Mael brothers in supporting roles as actors. “Annette” (which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) is set for release by Amazon Studios in August 2021, thereby making it the second movie of 2021 (after “The Sparks Brothers”) to feature Ron and Russell Mael. “The Sparks Brothers” world premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and the world premiere of “Annette” is at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival,

“Annette” is the culmination of years of the Mael brothers’ dream to do a movie musical. “The Sparks Brothers” documentary includes their version of what happened when they parted ways with director Tim Burton on a movie musical called “Mai, the Psychic Girl,” based on the 1985-1986 manga series written by Kazuya Kudō and illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. The Mael brothers worked on the movie during a time (the late 1980s to early 1990s) when the duo’s career was in a slump, and they say they needed a hit project to keep them financially afloat.

Although the Mael brothers don’t give too many details on what led to Burton’s departure from the project, they make it clear that Burton was the one who walked away, and the Mael brothers were heartbroken over it. (According to numerous reports, Burton chose to instead work with Disney for 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and 1994’s “Ed Wood.”) The Mael brothers invested several years and most of their personal fortune into the “Mai, the Psychic Girl” movie. And once Burton was no longer involved in making the movie, all the other investors backed out. The rights to make the movie eventually went to other people, but so far, attempts to make “Mai, the Psychic Girl” into a movie have not come to fruition.

Another crossroad in Sparks’ career that’s discussed in the documentary is when the Mael brothers decided to relocate to England in 1973, after growing frustrated by their lack of commercial success in the United States. They fired their American band mates to start over in a completely new country. It was in England that Sparks began to blossom artistically and found a bigger fan base than ever before. Sparks’ popularity eventually spread all over Europe (mainly in Western Europe), where Sparks had their biggest hits. The Mael Brothers moved back to the Los Angeles area in 1976.

Although Sparks has plenty of fans in other continents, Europe is where Sparks has been glorified the most. Sparks became so associated with England in the 1970s, that many fans who discovered them back then incorrectly assumed that the Mael brothers were natives of England. Sparks’ biggest string of hit songs were in the 1980s, including 1983’s “Cool Places,” from the album “In Outer Space”; 1986’s “Music You Can Dance To,” the title track of Sparks’ 1985 album; and 1989’s “Just Got Back From Heaven,” from the 1988 album “Interior Design.”

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary has plenty to say about the Mael brothers’ music, but very little to say about their personal lives, except for Russell mentioning that he was quite a playboy when he was young. The Go-Go’s co-founder/rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who’s interviewed in the documentary, says she dated Russell in the early 1980s, but their brief romance was more one-sided on her part. And in the early 1970s, Russell used to date a well-known groupie named Miss Christine, who was part of a short-lived all-female singing group called the GTO’s, whose first and only album was produced by Frank Zappa. Pamela Des Barres, a member of the GTO’s, is interviewed in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary.

There’s no mention if Ron or Russell ever married or if they have children—something they’ve refused to publicly talk about for years. However, it’s clear that even through their ups and downs, the brothers have remained close. The documentary shows that Ron and Russell have a routine of going to their favorite cafe in the Los Angeles area before going back to their home studio to work.

There’s some footage of the brothers creating music in their home studio. The documentary needed more of that type of behind-the-scenes footage and less talking heads giving Sparks testimonials. It’s fair to say that this documentary is overstuffed with people talking about Sparks and doesn’t show enough current footage of what the lives of the Mael brothers are like. The archival footage is good enough, but avid Sparks fans have probably seen a lot of it already.

A constant theme in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary is that Sparks has been very underrated in how much Sparks has influenced musicians in pop and rock music. What the movie ignores—although it’s pretty obvious when you see who’s interviewed in the documentary—is that when fans and other admirers talk about Sparks’ influence, they’re really talking about influence on mainly white people. Pop music nowadays is a lot more diverse than it was in the 20th century, so if Sparks really had as wide of an influence range as this movie claims, then there would be more diversity in the people being interviewed, not just in terms of race but also nationality and age.

With the exception of Icelandic singer Björk (who is not interviewed on camera), the people interviewed in the documentary are British and American people who were born before 1985. They include musicians such as Beck; Duran Duran co-founders John Taylor and Nick Rhodes; Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos; Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea; Todd Rundgren; Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum; Jack Antonoff; Bernard Butler; Erasure members Vince Clarke and Andy Bell; “Weird Al” Yankovic; former Visage drummer Rusty Egan; Electric Prunes singer James Lowe; former Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward; Martyn Ware, co-founder of pop groups Human League and Heaven 17; DJ Lance Rock; New Order members Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert; and former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.

Past and present Sparks associates interviewed include former Sparks drummer Tammy Glover; former Halfnelson tour manager/photographer Larry Dupont, former Halfnelson manager Mike Berns; former Halfnelson/Sparks drummer Harley Feinstein; former Sparks drummer Hilly Michaels; former Sparks manager John Hewlett; former Sparks road Richard Coble; former Sparks drummer Christi Haydon; former Sparks bassist Ian Hampton; former Sparks drummer David Kendrick; former Sparks guitarist Dean Menta; Sparks manager Sue Harris; and Sparks drummer Stevie Nistor.

And several people known for their work in movies, television or stand-up comedy weigh in with their thoughts. They include “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright; actor Mike Myers; actor Jason Schwartzman; actor/comedian Patton Oswalt; TV producers/writers/spouses Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino; actor/comedian Jake Fogelnest; actor/screenwriter Mark Gatiss; comedian April Richardson; actor/comedian Scott Aukerman; and comedian/TV host Jonathan Ross, who jokes that Ron and Russell Mael “don’t really look like a band. They look [institutionalized] people who’ve been let out for a day.”

Media people interviewed include broadcaster/columnist Katie Puck; journalist David Weigel; radio host Michael Silverblatt; and poet Josh Berman. Other admirers who have soundbites in the film are Sparks superfans Madeline Bocchiaro (president of the Sparks Fan Club), Julia Marcus, Vera Hegarty and Ben House. And behind-the-scenes music industry people interviewed include producer Tony Visconti and former Island Records A&R executive Muff Winwood.

If you’re exhausted or annoyed just by reading this list of names people interviewed for this documentary, that’s kind of like how it feels to watch this too-large number of people chiming in with their soundbites about Sparks and sometimes interrupting the flow of the movie. “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright clearly wanted to show as many people as possible who profess their adoration of Sparks, but the “less is more” approach would’ve served this movie better. And it certainly would’ve lessened the movie’s overly long run time.

“The Sparks Brothers” also has a bit of a pretentious tone in how it tries to make it look like people who aren’t fans of Sparks must have something wrong with them. Quite frankly, as talented as Ron and Russell Mael are, their music will never be a lot of people’s cup of tea. In fact, what this movie could’ve used is at least some perspective from people who are music experts but aren’t worshipful fans of Sparks and were never on the Sparks payroll. It would go a long way to explain why Sparks never caught on with a massive, worldwide audience.

Despite the overabundance of fawning over Sparks in this documentary, anyone who appreciates unique artists in music can find something to like about “The Sparks Brothers.” The movie also succeeds in presenting Ron and Russell Mael in their most candid on-camera interview spotlight. And the joy that Sparks has brought to so many people is obvious, so it’s a delight to watch in this movie.

Focus Features released “The Sparks Brothers” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021.

2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: presenters announced

March 13, 2019

by Carla Hay

The presenters have been announced for the 34th Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, presented by Klipsch Audio, which will take place at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, on March 29, 2019.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, presenting for The Cure
Brian May of Queen, presenting for Def Leppard
Janelle Monáe, presenting for Janet Jackson
Harry Styles, presenting for Stevie Nicks
David Byrne, presenting for Radiohead
John Taylor and Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran, presenting for Roxy Music
Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles, presenting for The Zombies

The show will have a live radio broadcast on SiriusXM, and HBO will premiere a special televising highlights from the show on April 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT. The special will also be available on HBO on Demand, HBO Go, HBO Now and partners’ streaming platforms. Exhibits showcasing the new inductees will be on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in conjunction with the induction ceremony.

Performers eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are those whose first single or first album was released at least 25 years before the artist can be inducted. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voting members (which number about 1,000 people), as well online voting from the public, determine who will be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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