photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance
By Bailey Pennick
“Watching that made me realize why I have gray hair,” says Mark Mothersbaugh, a bit dazed after the Sundance Film Festival premiere of DEVO. Maybe his pause was due to the fact that his life just literally flashed before his eyes, or maybe it was the fact that he was answering questions about that flashing life while looking at a sea of bright red energy domes. The De-volution is real; however, its latest visual project isn’t a bright, surreal music video by the band, it’s a film about them instead.
Chris Smith’s latest documentary charts the life of the art-movement-turned-band from Akron, Ohio, through a treasure trove of archival footage of the band, along with candid sit-down interviews with the band. With 50 years in their rearview mirror, the Mothersbaughs (Mark and Bob) and Gerald Casale have no reason not to be forthcoming. As seen through pointed TV interviews and high-art album concepts, biting their tongues and holding back has never been a part of Devo’s ethos.
Nor should it be. Devo was born from the aftermath of the Kent State massacre and fought against it and what followed for the next five decades with their art. DEVO deftly avoids the standard rockumentary tropes by creating a mosaic of personal memories, professional trajectories, and artistic pleas for the future of this crumbling world. “We made terrible business ideas constantly,” says Mark Mothersbaugh to laughs from the crowd. “We were foolish enough to think that original ideas mattered.” The laughs turn to quiet murmurs. There’s a strange feeling you get in your gut when you hear the truth.
That’s the brilliance of Devo for you; they lure you in with something funny, shiny, or outrageous — usually accompanied by a killer riff — right before they remind you of the horrific realities of the world, begging us to wake up. Smith feels this particularly from one of the band’s classic music videos, which he ends the film with: “The ‘Beautiful World’ video was kind of the Rosetta stone for this film. The way they use archival footage really inspired us in making this film… I wanted to absorb what they were doing and reflect it back [within this film.]”
While it’s now Smith’s turn to reflect the power of Devo onto a new generation — or wake up the one that came up with the group to get back to the original mission — the director will never forget how they first inspired him.
“Devo expanded what it meant to be an artist and, for me as a 23-year-old kid, that meant making movies.”
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