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Devo and Filmmaker Chris Smith on Their Sundance Doc: How the Band’s ‘Transgressive, Naughty’ Performance Art Infiltrated the Pop Mainstream

Devo is headed to Sundance, not just for the festival premiere of the Chris Smith-directed documentary film that share’s the band’s name, but a Jan. 21 performance by the group at the just-opened Marquis on Main Street. And maybe that’s not all from the rock avant-gardists turned “Whip It” hitmakers.

“Powder’s gonna fly,” promises original member Gerald Casale.

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“We’ll be skiing,” concurs co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh. “We’ll be doing stunt-skiing.”

Well, let’s leave it at the premiere and performance, then; Mothersbaugh and Casale don’t really intend to put the “jock” back in “Jocko Homo,” most likely. But 45 or 50 years ago, they were very much shredding anything resembling rock ‘n’ roll norms or mores, as captured in Smith’s “Devo,” which chronicles a half-century of the group doing its best to introduce subversive philosophical and musical ideas into the mainstream, especially in their most revolutionary, formative years.

By the time they became MTV staples in the early ‘80s, there was something a little bit more user-friendly, if not actually cuddly, about Devo, as they rode atop a wave of synth-pop, on its edgiest curl. But from their origins as Kent State students in Akron in 1973 through their earliest recordings, there was something a little bit scarier about Devo, with their use of masks and off-center riffs and evangelizing for the theory of “de-evolution.” Those were elements that never completely went away, even as they graduated from a bizarre theatricality to vying for a place on the top 40.

It’s difficult to think of anything else in pop culture that started out quite so much as pure performance art that ended up being so accepted as pop. “Tangentially, maybe there were elements in the Velvet Underground, certainly, that portended that,” says Casale. “And if you go back to the ‘20s and Dadaism, there’s elements of that, although it doesn’t play out the same way. But yeah, what Chris caught was the uniqueness of Devo’s vision, what we were doing. As people say, ‘they were in their own lane,’ and that is absolutely true of us. it was great for outsiders and disenfranchised groups, because Devo was doing something kind of transgressive, kind of naughty, kind of intellectually challenging, and that’s what was getting us off. And it’s sustained itself and withstood the test of time on some level.”

The film capture the odd twists of fate and careerism that had a band that was getting booed off the stage in Akron clubs suddenly, within a period of years, being welcomed onto the squarest TV shows in America. As the film makes clear, that represented, to them, the height of subversiveness, rather than selling out.

“Maybe we should have sold out,” says Casale. “But when you watch that, again, we’re not selling out, it’s just this incongruent juxtaposition of one reality eating another in front of a TV camera. [Going on] Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dick Clark, Wolfman Jack…. I mean, it’s really funny to watch.”

The doc captures the time at the turn of the ‘70s and ‘80s when the band found a philosophical partner of sorts in Neil Young, who used Devo at length as actors and musicians in his own experimental film, “Human Highway” (and was obviously influenced by them in making his synth-heavy “Trans” album). But even Young had one thing about the group he didn’t quite get.

“Neil was an amazing artist,” says Mothersbaugh, “and when you go back and look at  ‘Human Highway’ and his other films, he made them the same way that Robert Downey Sr. used to make films, which was very avant-garde, on the streets and coming up with the ideas as they were going along. So we definitely had things that we both embraced, while there were also things that were abstract to each other and alien. I remember when Neil saw our first album, he scolded me for us putting product — merchandise — on the inside sleeve. We were so excited about it, because it was kind of like the back page of a comic book, you know? That was the kind of stuff that made our imaginations run wild. But also, it wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts. It was as original as the music. And it cost us a lot of money to have to manufacture that stuff, because all (merchandizers) wanted to do was shirts and ball caps.”

What are they most proud of having turned into a product?

“Well, the most successful, of course, is the red plastic energy dome hats,” says Casale. “Everybody wanted one after they got done laughing at us. And I know for a fact that more people have that energy dome than ever bought Devo records.”

Mothersbaugh remembers with pride how the concept was updated during the pandemic for further satirical merch possibilities. “The guy who molded the hats for us came up with a mask, like a sneeze guard — a face shield that we could attach to the energy dome hats. And so it stays relevant. “

“Those would’ve been good back in the punk days, when they were gobbing on us,” notes Casale.

“Yeah, we had the yellow [industrial] suits, so 95% of our body was protected, but the faces weren’t,” adds Mothersbaugh.

On a much more serious level, Devo meant what it said about de-evolution, an area of inquiry they began developing when they were deeply affected by the killings on campus at Kent State that saw non-violent Vietnam protesters mowed down by the National Guard. As much as the group’s take on men turning back into monkeys could take on a comical hue, their cynicism about the arc of the universe bending away from justice was informed by the cynicism that came out of that campus tragedy, as the film recounts.

“It was a defined fork in the road,” says Casale, “and it happens to be very relevant to what we’re in the midst of right now. Everything that was happening then is now happening on steroids, as they say. And you ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait till the elections happen in ‘24.”

Smith is a Sundance veteran; his “American Movie” won the grand jury prize for best documentary at the festival back in 1999. Since then, he’s helmed docuentary films or series including “Fyre,” the Netflix series “Tiger King” and a film about the aforementioned Robert Downey Sr., “Sr.” Most recent on his resume was a rare (for him) venture into the music documentary field, “Wham!” Any similarities between documenting George Michael and Devo’s Booji Boy character? “Just that they both took over four years,” the filmmaker says.

Smith was influenced to have his fast-edited style resemble at least one of the band’s classic signature videos. “I think the editor and I were really inspired by the visual language of Devo. There were many different incarnations of things that they did in relation to video, but we really especially liked ‘Beautiful World’ and the way that they were using archival footage, and we tried to use that as an inspiration for this film, because it felt like it would attempt to sort of stay within the language that they created.”

As far as subject matter, “I personally was more interested in the bigger picture of what they were trying to do and say, and how that manifested itself over the time that they were together, as opposed to getting into the minutiae of everyone’s personal lives. I was interested in the concept of Devo, as it pertained to the band and what they were trying to communicate.

“I grew up in the Midwest, and Devo was hugely influential to me,” Smith adds, “and one of the things that attracted me to trying to work on this was, if there could be more young people subjected to Devo and inspired by that, I thought that would be positive. That was the thing — the band changed who I was as a person, on a deep level.”

Bob Mothersbaugh, Mark’s brother, has also been sitting in on this interview, but he’s the strong, silent type, albeit not that quiet as a lead guitarist and occasional lead singer in the band’s still thrilling live shows. We asked him: Was there anything for him that was fun to see recaptured in this movie, that just kind of tickles him in any way?

“Absolutely nothing,” says Bob.

Casale tried prompting him. “Not even when we did our kind of pre-Devo longform [show] in Akron, where it was a dry run at Akron University, and you’re in your white shirt with a tie? I like that.”

“Yeah. OK,” concedes Bob Mothersbaugh, reluctantly. “One thing tickled me.” And he resumes his silence.

The others are more verbose, with Casale saying, “Since so much concentrates on the early days, in an origin-story kind of way, it is nice to see the crudity of all the things that inspired us, including all the imagery that we would appropriate from terrible ads and comic books and low men’s magazines, just to see it all together go by in a collage. We were having fun with this stuff. If we were laughing at something, that’s what was important to us.”

Asked about tour plans — following a successful 2023 outing that was promoted as a “farewell” tour, which they insist was not that at all — they grow more philosophical than immeditley logistical.

“We’re figuring it out right now,” says Mothersbaugh. “I think we’re gonna be touring more. But in a way, Devo is kind of at the halfway point. We’ve spent the first 50 years warning people that humans were the toxic species on the planet, and that we were the one that was out of touch with nature. And I think the next 50 years is going to be talking to kids, and everybody, about the positive mutations in their lives … about ‘mutate, don’t stagnate.’ So here we are — we’re at this place where all our icebergs are melting, and we’ve got to figure out a way to solve these problems. And I think a positive message is gonna come out from Devo as far as that’s concerned.”

Adds Casale, “Well, humans are gonna have to transform. Like, ‘what is human’ is going to have to be redefined.”

“It might not even be flesh and blood anymore,” Mothersbaugh says. “If AI gets perfected enough, we might be able to all just migrate into the web” — or “ download our consciousness into avatars in the metaverse,” as Casale suggests. In the meantime, while that tech gets ironed out: Documentaries are forever, too, right?

“Devo” premieres on Sunday, Jan. 21, at 10 p.m. at the Library Center Theatre in Park City. Tickets for the group’s concert in Park City the following night (which is not part of the official Sundance program) are available at tixr.com.

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