Sundance 2024: Devo documentary gives proper due to one of pop music’s most astute groups of social, cultural intelligence

In the excellent documentary Devo, directed by Chris Smith and the first such project which band members authorized, the definitive roots of a band which commanded an intense amount of attention with albums that were produced and released between 1978 and 1984 are properly elucidated in the film. Audiences at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival definitely enjoyed the film, with its bristling and generously entertaining pace which seemed most appropriate for this historical treatment. Indeed, the interviews with Devo members in the film make for the best and most instructive highlights.

Many others  have typically relied on the band’s appearance as a musical guest on an October 14, 1978 episode of Saturday Night Live as the starting point for the discussion about Devo. But Smith wisely gives fair due to Kent State University as the preeminent location of the band’s provenance.

To this day, the Kent state campus in Ohio remains the center of the most valuable historical research surrounding the band. For example, university librarian Jason Prufer’s book Small Town, Big Music: The Outsized Influence of Kent, Ohio, on the History of Rock and Roll was published by the university press in 2019. In 2003, Giffels and Dellinger wrote and published the first substantial book about the band Are We Not Men? We are Devo!, which was updated six years ago.

A still from DEVO by Chris Smith, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Smith zeroes in effectively to give plenty of screen time to the ideals which band members considered as the crux of their artistic expression. It is true that the band’s first truly national exposure came on the SNL show but what more momentous was their take on one of rock’s most untouchable songs of the time, the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, which they performed that evening. The band’s imagery of robots with a synchronized choreography made its impression and  band members Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh leveraged the moment to explain the ideological genesis of the band. They knew full well that many would see their perorations as novel to the extent of sounding preposterous. In fact, their debut album title took a line from the film adaptation of H.G. Wells science-fiction classic The Island of Dr, MoreauQ: Are We Not Men? A:We Are Devo!

One of the best takeaways from Smith’s film is the credible substance of the band member’s fundamental critique of consumerism and American society, which has turned out to be profoundly prescient today, as more people despair about the false perceptions and underpinnings of what constitutes a life leading to self-actualization. In the six years when the band was at the apex of its visibility, every song, video, performance tour and television appearance reinforced and validated their central hypothesis. 

All of this was tracked in the band’s signature outfits, as they moved from factory worker garb and 3-D glasses to gray naugahyde suits and the energy dome hats that looked like flowerpots turned upside down and ultimately to their phase as New Traditionalists during the Reagan Administration, sporting jet black hairpieces which resembled the pompadour hairstyle of the late president John F. Kennedy. The band apparently enjoyed how confused interviewers and others were about the significance of these symbols of their synchronized automaton identities. 

A still from DEVO by Chris Smith, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

They were just as sly in amplifying this effect through their music, Most of their music did follow the standard 4/4 beat but there would be moments in some songs where odd rhythms such as 7 / 8 popped up, notably in JockoHomo. The point was people are so constricted that they can only handle a body rhythm in a standard beat, without ever realizing that in odd or syncopated rhythms you can still find a way to count out the beats in your body and move confidently. 

Another valuable part of Smith’s film emphasizes the band’s early ventures in film and video, including a ten-minute short, directed by Chuck Statler,  The Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-evolution, which won a jury prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1977. Of course, the documentary dedicates a good bit of time to the band’s most familiar hit Whip It and the story behind one of the most famous (and controversial) music videos ever produced. Smith also makes clear that it was not MTV, but Devo, which really deserves the credit for demonstrating the artistic potential of the music video as something far more interesting than the conventional performance clip of singers and bands. In 1981, when MTV was launched, Devo had already put nine songs to concept videos, which MTV welcomed and featured in heavy rotation. 

Returning to Satisfaction, the film shows just how astute the band was in taking what originally was considered a prominent example of a protest song but then recognizing how the Rolling Stones original still failed to untether itself from corporatized consumerism, despite the yearnings in Jagger’s  lyrics to be truly independent. The Devo documentary certainly preserves the legacy of an exceptionally smart band that was one of the period’s most interesting and prescient artistic groups as public intellectuals. 

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