There were red flowerpot hats on each of the seats. The “Energy Domes,” as they used to call them, were Devo’s headgear of choice during the early 1980s, back when the band went from extremely bizarre, unclassifiable group to extremely bizarre, slightly more classifiable (postpunk, New Wave, geek rock) group who’d somehow turn a single entitled “Whip It” into a massive hit. No one told the Sundance Film Festival audience to put them on before the premiere of Devo, Chris Smith’s documentary on the pride of Akron, Ohio. But we did, and by the time the lights went down and Smith (Wham!, Fyre) walked to the front of the Library Theater to introduce the film, he was staring out a sea of geometric silhouettes. Are we not men? We are devotees.
Kicking off with a barrage of kitschy imagery and an abundance of irony and ecstasy, Devo lets you know that it’s the definitive portrait of an art project by mimicking its subject’s Dada-meets-deadpan-humor aesthetic. By the time it settles into a music-doc groove and begins tracing the history of the group from a collaboration between Kent State students Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh to Eighties alt-rock icons, you’re already in a Devo state of mind: perverse, critical, pop culturally cracked and politically conscious. Partially formed in the aftermath of four students being murdered by national guardsman on campus in 1970, the band made protest music from the very beginning — it just wasn’t the typical protest music of the times. Mothersbaugh, Casale, and the rest of their original six-person lineup didn’t earnestly strum acoustic guitars. They dealt in noise and confrontation, as evidenced by the “migraine solo” that Mothersbaugh played in a monkey mask during their first 1973 gig. They started the concert with several dozen audience members in attendance. By the end of the first few numbers, two remained.
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Mothersbaugh and Casale, along with interviews from other band members (including the late Bob Casale and Alan Meyers) then walk viewers through the gradual evolution of their Devo-lution philosophy, involving a religious pamphlet that Mothersbaugh got as a school kid, obsessions over simians, utilizing “new sounds” courtesy of rewiring equipment and synthesizers, and the joys of jerking back and forth onstage. The Island of Lost Souls gave them their “Are we not men?” refrain, which made their early song “Jocko Homo” an anthem for pomo mutants. Their exposure to the Ramones inspired them to speed up their songs, which added a dynamic sense of urgency. Brian Eno produced their first album. David Bowie and Neil Young were fans. When the latter’s manager Elliot Roberts wanted to take Devo on as a client, they told him they’d sign if he could get them on Saturday Night Live. The result remains one of the best SNL musical performances and the greatest Rolling Stones cover to date — per Mothersbaugh, Mick Jagger first listened to it in a state of shock, yet was shaking his ass to it before the final “I can’t get me no.”
As Smith’s doc reminds us, the visuals of Devo were a key part of the experiment long before the yellow coveralls, the energy domes and the spud costumes earmarked the band’s tongue-in-cheek-chic fashion choices. One of the reasons that Devo feels so vital in its recounting of the band’s ascension is the fact that they were not only early adopters of what would soon be called “music videos,” but video itself. “We filmed everything,” both Mothersbaugh and Casale note, partially out of fascination with the medium and partially out of the belief that they’d become some sort of eventual big deal. “Whip It” made that last part come true, though that wasn’t even Warners’ choice for a single — they opted for “Girl U Want,” which tanked. It wasn’t until a Florida DJ started spinning the third track of 1980’s Freedom of Choice that Devo started getting major radio airplay. They were already an omnipresence on MTV thanks to a series of shorts made with filmmaker Chuck Statler. The song’s video, which was intended as a comment on Ronald Reagan’s fascist cowboy persona, made the band twice as popular and a target for critics. Not everyone got the joke.
Devo somehow survived fame, fortune, and being perpetually misunderstood after saying yes to a host of offers intended to rage against the machine — you either sense the subversion behind their still-hilarious Honda scooter commercial or you don’t. (Either way, it sold a lot of Hondas to consumers. Irony is a two-way street.) They kept making great music and great music videos, and pioneered the notion of using video screens to project imagery as a backdrop for live performances. Then the usual implosion and exhaustion, not to mention the changing cultural tides, fractured the band. Devo dutifully chronicles all of this, giving Mothersbaugh and Casale a platform to weigh in on the ups and downs, as well as their other creative endeavors (scoring films, directing commercials). The doc ends before the group’s first reunion in 1996, which happen to mark the last time they were at Sundance, when they performed on the fest’s closing night. Wisely, it goes out on what may be Devo’s masterpiece, the video they made for “Beautiful World.” A mix of humor, horror and camp that juxtaposes images of war and KKK rallies against vintage futurism, it acts as a perfect bookend to the film’s opening montage. They started as Dadaist pranksters calling out social hypocrisy and the growing idiocracy around them. They kept skewering the same mass devolution until they broke up. Plus ça change.
When Casale, Mothersbaugh and his brother Bob, a.k.a. “Bob 1,” went up to the front for a postscreening Q&A, they received a standing ovation and a hero’s welcome; everyone donned the plastic energy domes again in tribute. The best homage, however, happened when it was the audience’s turn to ask the trio a question. A moviegoer sitting in the first row repeatedly asked about the group having to get “permission” for what they did during their career. It was safe to assume that the person in question was in some state of mental alteration, and no one — not Smith, not the festival moderator, not his fellow audience members and definitely not the band — could figure out what he was getting at. The gentleman was becoming more and more agitated as the moments passed, and was not giving up the mic. Finally, Casale gamely played along and answered the “question,” which still did not satisfy the man. Casale seemed beside himself with joy. “Was he a plant?” he asked. “That was amazing. That was Devo!!!”
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