On the VH1 show True Spin, Duran Duran explained that Rio is a metaphor for America, and the song expressed their desire to succeed there, which they did. The wordplay is interesting, as Rio is sung as if it's a girl's name, and the word conjures images of the popular and glamorous Brazilian city, which goes with the exotic image the band was cultivating. The lyrics clearly state, however, "from mountains in the North down to the Rio Grande," which is the span of America. The Rio Grande river separates the US from Mexico.
A few studio tricks were employed to get a distinctive sound for this song. The synthesizer was hooked up to an arpeggiator, which is a tool that creates an arpeggio effect by automatically stepping through a sequence of notes. Also, keyboard player Nick Rhodes made the sound at the beginning of the song by placing some metal rods on the strings of a grand piano, playing the instrument, then recording the sound backward.
The girl who laughs in the song was the girlfriend of Nick Rhodes.
The video did a great deal to frame the image of Duran Duran as international superstars. Shot off the coast of Antigua while the band were vacationing there (they got along so well at the time they even vacationed together), they appeared wearing expensive suits while riding a yacht. The character Rio appears as an exotic-looking woman (sometimes wearing body paint) that is the object of their affections. The colorful video stood out on MTV, which didn't have many videos at the time and played it often.
The clip was directed by Russell Mulcahy, who did most of the band's videos around this time. He wrote the script around the yacht scenes because one of Duran Duran's managers decided he wanted to yachting in Antigua, and since the band was already vacationing there, they went to them to shoot the video.
In an interview with Q magazine (February 2008) the band were asked to respond to the criticism that their videos "sold a lifestyle." Singer Simon Le Bon replied: "No! Rio wasn't a lifestyle, it was total fantasy. You don't wear a silk Anthony Price suit on a boat with some painted chick running around. It was a comedy video. None of us had boats. It was a greedy reaction to the hard times that had gone before."
Nick Rhodes recalled the filming of the song's video to Observer Music Monthly November 2008: "We were on holiday in Antigua, staying next to each other, like the Monkees. We were rung up and told, 'Stay there, we're bringing a film crew.' I only like boats when they're tied up, and you can have a cocktail without spilling it. We were initially going to shoot the video for 'Rio' indoors and we'd had Antony Price make these beautiful suits for us. I remember thinking: 'Oh my God, that sea water, it's going to ruin all this silk.'
With a sail boat, you're off into the distance and it takes a while to turn round. I was glad to get off. Simon Le Bon loved it, climbing as far as he possibly could along the prow. He always had an action man side.
John Taylor threw Andy Taylor off the side - a bit of a premonition, that, because Andy would leave the band in 1985 - and there was a real moment of horror later when the director Russell Mulcahy was filming with Reema, the girl in the video, and a gust of wind shattered a giant mirror next to her. She only had a couple of scratches."
The song at one point had the title "Amy A-Go-Go." When Simon Le Bon and John Taylor were on the UK show Songbook, Le Bon explained: "When we went in to make the second album, when we were starting thinking about it, you (Taylor) came up with the title 'Rio' and said, 'I think this sort of says it all in kind of a Roxy Music cool sort of way.' And we were like, 'Yeah!' It absolutely, does. And we'd been to America and it had a lot of references to America in it. And I'd seen this girl working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. And I just started writing on the back of a napkin about how she was, and that's what turned into the verse."
Bassist John Taylor told the A.V.Club
that for the song's complicated arrangement, which "shifts gears several times," the band "were thinking along the lines of" Sly and The Family Stone's 1969 tune, "I Wanna Take You Higher."