Chris Smith’s Documentary Is As Much Fun As Its Subject

I will never forget the first time I saw Devo. It was October 14, 1978, and my college roommates and I were watching “Saturday Night Live.” The band, which I had never heard of (I would guess that was true of 98 percent of the people watching the show), came on in their yellow jumpsuits, stiff and mechanical, swiveling like angry androids as they performed their brutalist robo version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” When the song ended, one of the band members shot up his hand in what looked kind of like a Hitler salute. (It wasn’t, but it was close enough.) At this point, the punk revolution was old news, and the new wave was in full swing. I had eaten up the apocalyptic barbed anarchy of the Sex Pistols; I reveled in the Ramones, the Clash, Talking Heads, you name it. But I’m not remotely exaggerating when I say that Devo doing “Satisfaction” on “SNL” remains the only musical performance I have ever seen that scared me. They gave me the shivers.

By the time the band came back for its second number, “Jocko Homo,” I’d steeled myself and was a little more ready for them. Yet the sight of Mark Mothersbaugh yelping “We’re pinheads now, we are not whole/”We’re pinheads all, Jocko Homo,” then wriggling out of his jumpsuit as if he were in some manic state of regression was still…intimidating. I had no idea, at the time, what Devo was about, but all I could think was: Is this the music of the future? The mere possibility seemed terrifying.

To the millions of Devo fans who came to know the band through “Whip It,” the propulsive and perverse, outrageously hooky anthem of proactive self-help that became a crossover hit for them when it was released two years later (propelled by a music video that winked at the song’s sadomasochistic subtext), my story probably sounds a bit silly. How could anyone be scared of Devo? In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the band was a lot of things — performance-art showmen, pioneers of music video, satirical absurdists with a big message (that American society wasn’t progressing — it was devolving), and, not so incidentally, sizzling musicians who created their own brand of inside-out rock ‘n’ roll. Once you got onto their wavelength, what all this added up to was a very weird and vital form of fun.

Chris Smith’s “Devo” is a documentary that’s every bit as fun as its subject. For Devo fans, it’s 90 minutes of irresistible pop history and dazzlingly edited surrealist audio-visual candy. Watching the film, though, I could still see what I found a little ominous about Devo in 1978. The band wasn’t just playing their songs or proselytizing about “de-evolution.” They projected an image of where we were going. Nearly 50 years later, it turns out that they were right, but you actually didn’t need the last 50 years to see that. Listening to Devo, drinking in what they were about, you knew in your bones that they were right. They crafted songs that were like punk candy in their percussive catchiness, yet they’d seen the future, and it wasn’t pretty.

Every music documentary traces how the artists it’s about got started. But in the case of Devo, that story is notably mysterious and fascinating. Because this was a band with the strangest roots ever, and a band that genuinely evolved, like a creature crawling out of the water to walk without knowing what it was yet. Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, the founding leaders of Devo, were born in 1950 and 1948, and the swamp they emerged from was the grubby square working-class city of Akron, Ohio. The two met at Kent State University and were right there during the May 4, 1970, protest against the Vietnam War that resulted in four students being shot and killed by National Guard troops, with other students wounded.

This, of course, became a tragic legend in the history of the counterculture, and it exerted a profound influence on Mothersbaugh and Casale. “There would be no Devo without Kent State,” says Motherbaugh in the film. He and Casale, in laying out the history of the band, remember themselves as leftist idealists, yet on the day of the massacre that idealism came crashing down. It was then that they began to evolve their philosophy of what was really happening in America.

They drew on a crazed welter of inspirations, many of them decades old: the Dada art movement of the early 20th century; a rabble-rousing pamphlet from 1933 that featured the words “Jocko Homo” and images of monkeys and the devil emblazoned, on his chest, with the word “de-evolution”; the postmodern prankishness of Andy Warhol; and, finally, the moment that brought it all together, when they saw the 1932 science-fiction horror film “Island of Lost Souls,” in which Charles Laughton played a mad scientist trying to turn animals into humans, a scenario that gives rise to the mythic phrase (uttered by Bela Lugosi’s Sayer of the Law), “Are we not men?”

Out of this mad mélange, Mothersbaugh and Casale evolved the idea — a kind of funhouse-mirror reversal of the Theory of Evolution — that mankind was now devolving, becoming less human and more apelike. Starting in 1973, when Devo was formed, they began a process, which would take a few years to nail down and get right, of expressing this idea through a madcap musical and visual idiom. They didn’t mean any of it literally, of course (though part of the fun of Devo is that they pretended they did). The whole we’re-devolving thing was, rather, a grand metaphor. Yet what was it a metaphor for? This is one place where I think the documentary falls a bit short — in elucidating what it was, exactly, that Devo was trying to say.

If you had never heard of Devo and watched this film, you might think the band’s message was a fairly standard progressive critique of American society. The way Mothersbaugh and Casale put it in the film, in the ’50s and ’60s America kept promising a world of progress — of greater social justice, of better living for everyone, and all the shiny propaganda of the post-WWII world. But Mothersbaugh and Casale, growing up in the blah heart of the Midwest, looked around them in the ’70s and saw a squalid, tacky, advertising-drenched, slouching-toward-oblivion society that wasn’t living up to the dream of those previous decades. If anything, it was slowly but surely spiraling down.

Fair enough. Yet that’s essentially the critique of America that had powered the hippie counterculture. The one line in the movie that begins to suggest what Devo was actually about is when Mothersbaugh, recalling the Kent State protest and shooting, tosses off the observation, “One thing we learned from that is that rebellion is obsolete.”

Whoa! That’s quite a statement. It’s not a statement that squared with progressive thinking back then; it’s not a statement that squares with progressive thinking now. For if rebellion became far less organized after the ’60s, it also became wired into the fabric of middle-class identity — one might say middle-class privilege. The Clash and other bands (including heavy-metal ones) sold rebellion. The indie rock of the ’80s sold rebellion. Social media now sells rebellion.

What Devo was saying, quite radically, is that “rebellion” against The System had become obsolete because “rebellion” was now part of The System. It was one more narcotizing way of making people numb by making them feel good about themselves. And what, in the eyes of Devo, had replaced — had, indeed, consumed — rebellion? In a word, conformity. (That’s one reason that rebellion was obsolete: It was about syncing your “protest” consciousness to that of everyone else.) What Devo were saying is that even “progressive” people were now living in a world of cookie-cutter orthodoxy, of obedience, where there could be no counterculture because the culture at large had already eaten it.

Devo, with their jump-suited stage antics and robot singing, were saying that America — even rock ‘n’ roll — was becoming a place of spud-like illusion that extended from the consumer culture to popular culture to political culture (which was now just another form of consumer culture). The band’s real theme wasn’t “de-evolution.” It was fascism. And they had the wit to make themselves an example of it. Even their music, with its concrete beats and mock directives, sounded fascist. When they became a mainstream success with “Whip It,” they toyed with the notion that the Top 40 was fascist. But in the new America, descended from the ’50s, fascism would now be sold with a beat and a smile.

“Devo,” in its way, preserves the playfulness of Devo by not getting too serious about any of this. Instead, the film traces the rocky road on which this unlikeliest of hit bands became a success. It shows us how they honed the avant-garde noodlings of their stage show, originally presented to hostile crowds in an Akron rock club, into a catchy and disciplined multi-media experience. And while they weren’t the first band to do videos (that would be the Beatles), they may have been the first to turn music video into a Dada satirical art form; we see the small films they made with director Chuck Statler for “Jocko Homo” and other tracks, and though primitive at times, they’ve lost none of their scabrous provocation.

We hear about how Devo first made their mark by becoming part of the extended punk family at CBGB, where the Dead Boys welcomed them by beating them up, and where, under the influence of the Ramones, they realized that their songs sounded better when played faster. There were celebrities in the audience (like Jack Nicholson), and Mothersbaugh tells a great story about how after a performance of “Uncontrollable Urge,” John Lennon came up to him and sang right into his face, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-YEAH!,” mimicking the song’s “She Loves You”-in-the-loony-bin hook. David Bowie became interested in the band in 1976, and said he wanted to produce them, but he didn’t follow through, maybe because he was in the middle of his own lost weekend. Their first album was ultimately produced by Brian Eno, who did a masterful job of coaxing out their subversive catchiness.

“Devo” touches on the extensive history of Devo’s bad record deals, starting with the one they struck with Warner Bros., which wound up entangled in a lawsuit when Richard Branson, the mogul of Virgin, attempted to poach them, and the band, having no manager, went along. Most arrestingly, though, the film celebrates, with its own visual slyness, how Devo expressed themselves in an aggressive explosion of imagery: the rubber masks of a chimpanzee and Booji Boy (a kind of overgrown ’50s baby who represented the ironic innocence at the heart of the New Regime); the plastic JFK-hair helmets; the shiny red energy-dome hats — which, incidentally, were given out as a gift to every audience member at the film’s Sundance premiere, a bit of swag that my college friends and I would have called “real devo” (and no, that wasn’t a compliment).

The film reminds you just how many great songs they had, like “Come Back Jonee” and “That’s Good” and “Beautiful World,” a gripping goose-step anthem that haunts you with its irony. The band faded out, in the mid-’80s, after its sixth album (though they ultimately continued to tour — something the movie should have made more of a point of mentioning). But their moment passed only because their mission was done. They had given us the message, and we had heard it and danced to it. There was nothing to do now but sit back and watch the world devolve.

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