Nancy Boys & Cherry Barbarellas

Had I never discovered Duran Duran, I probably would have never seen Jane Fonda in Barbarella (1968). So, when I read that the sci-fi film Cherry 2000 (1987) inspired the band’s “Electric Barbarella” video, I set out to find the film. Hoping to find an 80s slice of futuristic fun, I spent the money and rented the straight-to-VHS Cherry 2000 this weekend. While it was was more Barb Wire (1996) than Barbarella, I do think it brings some context to what the band, and director Ellen von Unwerth, were trying to convey in their video. Here’s the trailer:

The film itself borrows most of its post-apocalyptic imagery from the Mad Max series and stars Melanie Griffith as a “tracker” (bounty hunter meets Uber driver) in the wasteland that is 2017. Shot around Nevada, including Las Vegas, the scenery doesn’t feel too futuristic when you live here – I recently hiked a valley where they filmed many of the scenes. However, a young Griffith finding her feet as an actor is reason enough to enjoy the film as she takes David Andrews (Apollo 13, Wyatt Earp) into dangerous territory to find his new electric Barbarella after the original one short-circuits while seducing him on a wet kitchen floor (ok, this doesn’t sound like a great film on paper).

If you’re a fan of retro-futuristic films, Cherry 2000 is certainly a trip even if the plot is paper wafer. Spoiler alert: once rebooting his electric Barbarella, the guy realizes that the perfectly programmed robot is no replacement for the dusty and bleeding heroine played by Griffith. I want to believe this was the message Unwerth brought to the “Electric Barbarella” video. The costume and set design of the video was intentionally over the top as it took every aspect of the male ego to the extreme and opened it up to ridicule. No matter how perfect the band’s robot party might look, they are never actually in control and deep-down, they know that. As a photographer, Unwerth has always captured her models in positions of strength, even at their most sexy. Nobody looks like an electric Barbarella in her work.

So, did Cherry 2000 inspire “Electric Barbarella”? Yes and no but, seeing as pop stars are unreliable narrators of their own story, maybe. The song certainly plays with the themes of the film and how the technological fantasy of the future (the film’s tagline) is embodied by what Duran sees as an electric Barbarella (Austin Powers would call it a fem-bot). However, the video is a different story. Before directing Duran Duran for a second time (she also shot “Femme Fatale” for the band in 1993), Unwerth directed Nancy Boy’s clip for their cover of Gary Numan’s “Are “Friends” Electric?” and well, it looks like “Electric Barbarella” on less of a budget.

Nancy Boy slipped under my radar in the 90s but the more I hear, the more I am intrigued. Lead singer Donovan Leitch is the son of Donovan (“Mellow Yellow”) while guitarist Jason Nesmith is the son of a Monkee so the band had instant interest from the media. However, the music failed to latch on to the charts and band came to an end. The band were a little too early to the 80s revival that arrived in the early 2000s. Had their album arrived a little later, they might have found a spot between The Strokes and The Killers. While that never happened, Ellen von Unwerth did direct a video for them two years before she directed “Electric Barbarella” and it looks a lot like what came after it. What do you think?

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