Cable TV stalwart Showtime has quietly established itself as a solid force for pop culture good over the past decade. It gave David Lynch and Mark Frost free rein to take a new run of Twin Peaks episodes into gloriously surreal territory, used Billions to set a new template of fictional rich people being awful before Succession came along, and let Desus & Mero be Desus & Mero on their eponymous late night talk show. Sure, previously blue chip series like Homeland, Ray Donovan, and Shameless have run well past their expiration dates, but Showtime’s lifetime batting average remains impressively high.
Another factor in the station’s successful ’00s has been its production and acquisition of a slew of fine music documentaries. It’s a world of programming that Showtime has been cultivating since the network’s earliest days. When it launched in 1976, one of the first programs aired was a concert film featuring ABBA and Pink Floyd. And along the way, the station has broadcast live performances by everyone from the Oak Ridge Boys to Prince.
The concentration of Showtime’s music programming these days is in telling the stories of iconic artists in non-fiction form. Last year, there was a full slate of premieres, including documentaries on British rock god Jeff Beck and notoriously nasty punk singer GG Allin, and this past May, they unveiled the fantastic series Of Mics & Men, which walked through the groundbreaking and fractured history of hip-hop collective, Wu-Tang Clan. And Showtime finishes out 2019 with a pair of new films, culled from British television, that puts the spotlight on a pair of iconic post-punk groups: New Order and Duran Duran.
Both documentaries are about a year old, an eternity in our accelerated age, but neither film is far behind where things currently stand with each group. If anything, showing them back-to-back as Showtime is doing tonight, nicely contrasts how two synthpop groups that simultaneously came up through the ranks of the British music industry sought and achieved much different goals.
As Duran Duran: There’s Something You Should Know makes clear, this group from Birmingham, England had its collective eye set on pop success from the jump and bent over backward at times to keep a tight grip on their fame. Through this tidy hour, we get the quick and dirty version of the group’s history, jumping from their days haunting the Rum Runner Club in their hometown to haunting the studio with super-producer Mark Ronson to create their most recent album Paper Gods.
While that short running time does mean not slogging through interviews with parents and childhood friends (apart from a charming moment with singer Simon Le Bon visiting his former church choir director), that also leaves this documentary at surface level. The focus is primarily on the heights of Duran Duran’s career from their worldwide smash album Rio to their 1992 self-titled comeback album to 2015's Paper Gods, a Top 10 hit here in the US and around the world. Little is said about the group’s fallow periods in the late ’80s and early ’00s, and, blessedly, they don’t even mention their wretched 1995 covers album Thank You. But there’s also nearly nothing said about bassist John Taylor’s struggles with sobriety nor do we hear any current commentary from former guitarist Andy Taylor about his time in and out of the group.
Something is a bit of pop star glamour porn. Le Bon and drummer Roger Taylor cruise the streets of Birmingham in expensive sports cars, and everyone still looking fit and fashion-forward. Through that, however, the charm of the group’s various members is ever-present, especially the easy rapport they have with each other. Some of the best moments in this documentary are the four core members of Duran Duran sitting in an old Citroën listening to and grimacing at their first demo tape. Those relationships are clearly what has kept the band afloat since 1978 and will surely carry them into the new decade with ease.
Where Duran Duran has embraced the assistance of pop hitmakers like Ronson and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers to help keep the group on the charts, New Order has stubbornly stuck to their own somewhat insular creative path. The quintet has kept one ear trained towards contemporary dance music (see: the influence of electro and hip-hop on their mid-’80s singles and guests like La Roux and the Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands collaborating on their most recent album Music Complete), twisting it to their own ends. And any success they’ve scored from their efforts was begrudgingly accepted by most members of the group. When talking about “Blue Monday,” the band’s massively influential 1983, in the newly-released documentary New Order: Decades, drummer Stephen Morris talks about it dismissively and with some embarrassment.
Like Morris, Decades is much more concerned with what New Order is doing today. And, at the time this was filmed, that involved live performances by the band, augmented by a “synthesizer orchestra” made up of 12 keyboardists and led by conductor and arranger Joe Duddell. The concept, dreamed up in collaboration with artist Liam Gillick, was originally presented as part of the biannual Manchester International Festival. When the documentary crew catches up with New Order, the group is working on bringing the concert to Torino and Vienna and the film jumps between footage of those live shows and the arduous work that the band undertook to adapt their material for a larger group.
Decades works a little too hard to emphasize how much New Order doesn’t want to be beholden to their past with numerous talking heads reminding viewers that the set lists for these shows didn’t include many of the big hits or telling us how forward-thinking the group was for undertaking something like this. But their former selves aren’t too far away from this story. Director Mike Christie does a remarkable job wending in the history of the band, from their origins as members of Joy Division to today, without letting it slow down the momentum of the film.
The looks back also help to more fully appreciate how New Order could get away with something like reimagining songs like “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Heart & Soul” and not turn off their scores of fans. That’s rarefied air that Duran Duran sadly won’t go near, in spite of their obvious talent as musicians and arrangers. Watching both films in tandem only further uncovers the stark differences between the two acts. By not chasing the brass ring of fame, New Order has earned a level of cool that seems to elude Duran Duran, but has earned the latter a level of wealth and privilege that the former might never see. And by placing these films next to each other, Showtime is giving viewers a chance to find out what kind of pop music fan they are. Whichever story feels more authentic and admirable to you says so much about your personal tastes and aspirations. Choose wisely.
New Order: Decades and Duran Duran: There’s Something You Should Know will air on Showtime on Dec 27 at 7:30 & 9 pm, respectively, and are now available to stream on Showtime Anywhere.