As my 13-year-old son and I browsed a Buffalo, NY, record shop on a recent Saturday morning, his eyes were drawn to two action figures dangling from the wall. Both were from the popular ReAction toy line, known for its delightfully offbeat takes on pop-culture icons as diverse as Joe Strummer, Megan Rapinoe, Jimi Hendrix, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. The two figures my son grabbed confounded him even more than the Dee Snider hanging nearby. One of them was an intense, glasses-sporting figure brandishing a whip while wearing a red flower pot on his head. The other clutched a guitar while wearing shades and a yellow jumpsuit. “Devo,” I said happily, while starting to ponder this most unique and easily identifiable group.
What’s with the outfits? How did this band become so iconic? What did they do beyond “Whip It”? These are legitimate questions, and the answers are delivered with clarity and great humor in Chris Smith’s DEVO, a stellar documentary making its world premiere at Sundance. Devo die-hards, casual fans, and the uninitiated will all come away satisfied. Smith––director of the classic American Movie and fine docs like Fyre, Sr., and Wham!––has crafted a genuinely thrilling mix of archival footage and interviews with Devo figureheads Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale. As DEVO makes clear, rarely has a band so effectively infiltrated the mainstream with ideas so subversive, satirical, and bold.
Today, Devo occasionally records and tours; it is a legacy act deserving its victory lap. Mothersbaugh is now well-known for film scores, particularly his work with Wes Anderson, while Gerald Casale has directed videos for Foo Fighters and A Perfect Circle. They are still deeply connected to Devo, and, as Smith shows, remain dedicated to its theme of “de-evolution.” “Part of our message, a lot of people never got it,” Mothersbaugh explains. “They heard ‘Whip It’ and they went dancing, and that was it. And then there were the people that wanted to know why we were saying the things they said, or asking the questions that we asked.”
These were weighty questions, forged by a mutual disgust with American hypocrisy, morality, and downright idiocy. Mothersbaugh and Casale were students at Ohio’s Kent State University, and Casale was literally a few feet away from the killing of four students by the Ohio National Guard in 1970. Indeed, the band states that there would be no Devo without Kent State. The massacre is what led to the formation of the band and destroyed any remaining idealism once held by Mothersbaugh and Casale. The duo were influenced by Dadaism, Warhol, and the half-human, half-animals of Island of Lost Souls; as Casale puts it, “We were quite fond of anything related to monkeys, cannibalism, things falling apart.” The central tenet was the theme of de-evolution––things were regressing, rebellion was futile, man is immersed in his own ego.
Smith expertly weaves the words of Mothersbaugh and Casale with film clips, old commercials, and, eventually, actual footage of the band’s earliest days to clarify what de-evolution, Devo-style, was all about. Among the highlights is video of Devo’s first concert before a small audience of confused Kent State classmates. “It wasn’t our intention to make it that punishing,” Mothersbaugh explains. “What we were doing, in retrospect, was performance art.” Seeing David Bowie successfully play the role of Pop Artist With Ideas––“Bowie gave us hope we could get a voice in the marketplace,” Casale says––led the band to finally put its whole vision together: a marriage of music, theatrics, and philosophy.
From here, Smith shares the band’s rise to eventual MTV prominence: ambitious pre-music television videos, recording its masterful debut album with Brian Eno, fandom from the likes of Bowie and John Lennon, record company battles, and then, of course, “Whip It.” The video was meant as a parody of misogyny but some took its whip-brandishing cowboys literally. “We’ve been accused of being fascist, clowns, fascist clowns, stupid,” stated Casale during the band’s heyday. “That’s probably the most complimentary. I think Devo may be the most misunderstood band ever to show up on the face of the planet.”
While the band’s stock of early videos led to MTV dominance, Devo never hit the commercial heights of “Whip It” again. It was probably a bad sign that Warner Bros., as Mothersbaugh says, gave the band the following directive: “Do whatever you want to do––just make sure you do another ‘Whip It.’” For a time, its concepts were still reaching the masses via appearances on Merv Griffin and American Bandstand. Eventually, however, it was time for Devo to say goodbye and watch, like Casale says, as “somebody [else] will manage to sneak through, just like we did for a while.”
The documentary’s only real weakness is the speed at which Smith wraps things up. There is little attention paid to the band’s post-Warner Bros. output, not to mention its highly successful reunion tours. Its influence on bands like Nirvana is reduced to just a few seconds of screentime, and the enduring significance (and recognition factor) of its flower pots and jumpsuits is implied but never clearly established. Not to whip a dead horse, but would anyone have expected this band to someday be so well-known that it would inspire action figures? It is truly shocking and wonderful. As long as Devo’s image and music is absorbed by newbies, its spirit of combining (in Casale’s words) “the lofty ideas of art history with the crassest expressions of pop culture” will live on. DEVO the documentary can only help activate more young minds, and it serves as Devo’s fitting final (for now) message.
DEVO premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.