Advertisement

Sundance movie review: 'Devo' doc celebrates band's provocative politics

Devo speaks about their band in a new documentary. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Devo speaks about their band in a new documentary. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- The documentary Devo, which screened Monday at the Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of the band's formation and success. Along the way, it explains the band's political statements, which feel all the more relevant 50 years later.

Mark Mothersbaugh, Jerry Casale, Bob Mothersbaugh, Bob Casale and Alan Myers tell the oral history of Devo in separate interviews. The film goes in chronological order.

Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale met at Kent State in 1970. They were both upset by the Ohio National Guard shooting anti Vietnam demonstrators and even more upset by reporting that painted the protestors as the villains.

Through philosophy books and movies like Island of Lost Souls and Inherit the Wind, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale latched onto the idea of devolution. They already felt Americans were devolving with a lack of critical and abstract thinking in the '70s.

Fast-paced editing combines the interviews, historical footage and Devo's music videos and television appearances. It flows through the variety of Devo material.

Devo explains their political statements in the documentary "Devo." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Devo explains their political statements in the documentary "Devo." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Before they formed a band, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale made short films and did performance art. Music seemed to be the ideal way to promote their message so they got their siblings and Myers to join the band.

The focus shifts for a bit to chronicle the band's initial grassroots tour and singing with record labels. Devo was making music videos before MTV, so they were ready when the network came along.

From left to right, Gerald Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh and Bob Mothersbaugh are featured in the documentary "Devo." File Photo by Matt Campbell/EPA
From left to right, Gerald Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh and Bob Mothersbaugh are featured in the documentary "Devo." File Photo by Matt Campbell/EPA

Once the documentary reaches Devo signing with Warner Music, the band goes song by song explaining their political statements.

Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale noticed a Carl's Jr. ad touting freedom of choice, but showing four mostly similar burgers. So they wrote "Freedom of Choice" to say people really just want to be told what to like.

Chris Smith directed the documentary "Devo." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Chris Smith directed the documentary "Devo." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Their statements escalate with each song, to the point where even their label felt Devo was defying them. They satirized televangelists by opening for themselves as a fake Christian band, and fooled even their own audience.

Their most popular song, "Whip It," led to a video satirizing chauvinistic gender attitudes. But, the band preferred to provoke questions than ever answer them.

Whether Devo went too far or their time simply passed, the band acknowledges no one stays on top forever. Each found fulfilling work after the band and Mark Mothersbaugh writes film scores (The Royal Tenenbaums, Thor: Ragnarok) and TV scores (Rugrats, Beakman's World), where he inserts subversive messages.

But the musicians consider the popularity and content of Beavis and Butthead (who reviewed the "Whip It" video) and Jackass as signs they were correct about society's devolution. If they thought America was dumbing down in the '70s, they notice society certainly hasn't recovered.

Devo shows the creativity and insight that went into the band's music and act. It's bittersweet because they were unable to affect the course of society, but it is great food for thought for people revisiting these unique artists.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.