‘Devo’ Review: New Wave Radicals Get the Smart, Freewheeling Appreciation They Deserve

In one of many flavorful TV interview excerpts from the band’s prime in Devo, they identify themselves as aliens who have come down to Earth in UFOs with the aim of cultural infiltration. With their red plastic “energy dome” flowerpot helmets and utilitarian uniforms that look like kids’ home-made spacesuits, the group could almost pass for interplanetary messengers, preaching change as an urgent gospel for late 20th century America in rapid regression. As one member says: “We already felt like humans were insane, so for people to be enlightened, something had to happen.”

Anyone familiar with Devo solely through their 1980 monster hit “Whip It,” or even a handful of other heyday bangers like “Beautiful World,” “Working in the Coalmine,” “Girl U Want” or “Freedom of Choice,” will likely find Chris Smith’s propulsive documentary enlightening as well as vigorously entertaining.

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At one point after the group’s classic lineup had undergone changes, a former Sparks drummer joined. Smith’s film has elements in common with Edgar Wright’s ecstatic 2021 celebration of that art pop duo, The Sparks Brothers, in its energized montage, but also in the fact that idiosyncratic humor is an essential element of both groups’ music and that neither band was terribly good at playing the corporate game or showed much consistent interest in commercial success.

The head-spinning density of information, wide-ranging cultural contextualization and hypnotic visual and aural stimuli also call to mind Todd Haynes’ brilliant The Velvet Underground from the same year.

The thing Smith’s film makes clear up front is that people who hit the dance floor to Devo’s caffeinated synth-pop generally gave little thought to their message, hatched out of the concept of “de-evolution.” Key early influences ranged from an illustrated 1924 satirical anti-evolution tract, Jocko-Homo Heavenbound — which gave them the title of a 1977 B-side and a view of humankind as mutant apes — to the 1932 sci-fi movie Island of Lost Souls, its humanoid beast chant yielding the title of their first album in 1978, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

The nucleus of Devo came out of the Kent State University art student scene, with two sets of brothers, Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Gerald and Bob Casale, alongside Alan Myers. The initially jokey de-evolution idea gained seriousness in the wake of the Kent State shootings. With the National Guard killing student protesters and Nixon circumventing Congress to expand the Vietnam War into Cambodia, the impression of America moving backwards gained credence.

But art was as much a part of the band’s inspiration as politics, particularly European movements between the World Wars, like Dada and Surrealism, incorporated into an approach that was post-structuralist, absurdist and philosophical.

The bulk of new interviews are with Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, whose accounts of Devo’s early experimental gigs are dryly hilarious. One show featured an epic “headache solo,” performed by a musician in a chimpanzee suit on an electronic keyboard for an audience that dwindled from about 20 people to 12, then six, then finally just two. As they began shifting away from performance art into somewhat more accessible music, they booked shows by promising to play Bad Company covers and then got kicked out when they switched to their own material.

Around the same time, the band started developing variations on its signature look, with work coveralls, plastic goggles or masks and safety helmets, inspired by their hometown of Akron’s history as rubber capital of America, when tire manufacturers like Firestone were based there. Their stage costumes would eventually run to surgical masks and scrubs, stocking head coverings, molded black plastic wigs that were mistakenly interpreted as “Reagan hairdos,” and even opticians’ examination specs worn by Mark, who was legally blind before having glasses prescribed in grade school.

The band became pioneers of music video before MTV. The first film they made won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which gained them further exposure on the circuit, eventually paving the way for gigs in influential New York clubs CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Their audiences included Debbie Harry, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, John Waters, Iggy Pop and Leonard Cohen. John Lennon reportedly gave them a non-verbal roar of approval at the end of a show.

Somewhere in there, Devo also hired their first manager, on the condition he could get them onto Saturday Night Live. They describe that experience as “like a horror movie,” with Lorne Michaels in the scary role. But they played a sped-up version of their Stones cover, “Satisfaction,” reaching their first nationwide audience.

Being hard to classify, they were occasionally lumped in with punk bands by the music press, despite the uniformity of their yellow hazmat suits and headgear suggesting the opposite of anarchy. That led to the cheeky clarification: “We’re the fluid in the punk enema bag.”

Veteran documentarian Smith’s work has included Sundance winner American Movie, which tracks development and production of an indie horror film; Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, about the making of the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, with Jim Carrey; Fyre, a look at the fraudulent luxury music festival; Sr., about Robert Downey Jr.’s multihyphenate father; and most recently, the self-explanatory Netflix tribute to the ‘80s Brit pop duo that spawned George Michael, Wham! That eclecticism makes the director a good match for Devo.

An assured nonfiction storyteller, Smith works with editor Joey Scoma to weave together a nonstop, inventive collage of ephemera around concert footage, music videos, pre-existing and new interviews and a generous sampling of Mark’s graphic arts contributions, often spinning into animation. The humble potato, like the ape, is an important motif, with “Spudman” decals popping up all over.

As the doc works through times of struggle and success, creative cohesion and dissent, and notes on collaborators including David Bowie, Brian Eno and Neil Young, it becomes increasingly clear that Devo were prescient in their critiques of such things as consumerism, globalization, Reaganism and the dumbing down of American culture. The arrival of such phenomena as Beavis and Butt-Head and Jackass prompts the observation, “It’s the mass-marketing of idiocy. But it plays so well!”

They were innovators in their use of video, both as a promotional tool for their releases and as projection backdrop at their concerts. Ditto merchandise. They also show a healthy ambivalence about the music industry, then and now. Warner Music Group gets a presenter credit, though someone quotes an exec’s surprise when “Whip It” became massive: “Oh, I didn’t even know they were on our label.” There’s fascinating material from the early days of MTV, when Devo had more ready-made content than just about anyone, and insights such as the downside of cheap cassette production, which allowed Warners to make more while Devo made less.

The steadily declining appetite for music-biz experimentation caused interest to wane in their work as the culture became more corporatized. (There are amusing asides about more establishment acts like Bob Seger and REO Speedwagon.) A Devo video with an animated depiction of a French fry twisting into a donut hole was deemed far too sexually suggestive, pretty much ending their MTV days.

One of the takeaways from Smith’s lovingly assembled film is that Devo were never really a copacetic fit for mainstream American pop culture — too weird, too artsy, too smart, too subversive — but they somehow managed to sneak through for a while.

There’s just enough on Mark Mothersbaugh’s thriving career as a film score composer in later years to make you wish there were more. But it’s hard to quibble with a band bio that serves up such riches, both in candid reflections looking back from today’s perspective — on Devo’s history and the cultural climate in which they emerged — and in nuggets of wisdom and foresight from the archives. All this is packaged in a dizzying barrage of imaginative visuals and infectious music that’s almost overwhelming — in the best possible way.

Devo joins a string of standout recent films like The Sparks Brothers, The Velvet Underground, Summer of Soul and Little Richard: I Am Everything, to name just a few, demonstrating that we’re living in a golden age of music documentaries.

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