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‘Devo’ Review: The Subversive New Wave Band Gets a Standard Documentary Light on Insight

Early on in “Devo,” director Chris Smith’s documentary about the titular iconic band, we are given some background about their origin. Specifically, as the members of the group have said before, the band was born out of the horrors of the Kent State massacre where four students were killed and many others wounded by the Ohio National Guard during a protest against the Vietnam War on May 4, 1970.

As we see archival footage quickly give way to the band members themselves serving as the sole talking heads in the entire film, one of them remarks how this made them realize that rebellion of this kind is obsolete, a sentiment that is then echoed.

It is a revelation that Smith uses to then launch us into a standard Wikipedia-esque tracing of the entire history of Devo, from their unique rise to eventual fall from fame. However, it was this brief moment of something meatier being thrown out that proves to be the first of many which were crying out for at least some sort of deeper probing.

Though Devo is short for devolution, which the band members summarize as being about how humanity is regressing into violence and depravity, this seems to offer another wrinkle to how they may have been driven by a sense of despair. Rather than dig into this, or any of the other more complicated questions that occasionally pop up in the thinly sketched documentary, we are given what amounts to a mostly rote retelling of their history. There are moments of fun in this approach, but as a portrait of the band it feels oddly empty.

Premiering Sunday at Sundance, “Devo” is the type of documentary that is most valuable in terms of the access it provides. Smith, who has been behind some quite interesting works over the past couple of decades, from 1999’s “American Movie” to 2017’s “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” and last year’s “Wham!,” builds his latest around hearing from the group with Mark Mothersbaugh emerging as the most prominent voice.

There is something potentially refreshing hearing musicians reflect on their work and history like this, though such access can also come with a cost. Specifically, “Devo” is a documentary that plays more like a greatest hits overview than an insightful deep dive into what made this group tick. We get the broad strokes, but only in a way that seems like we’re always going where the subjects themselves want us to.

Some part of the choice to just let them have the microphone feels valuable as we repeatedly hear discussions of how misunderstood they felt they were. Thus, this presents an opportunity to finally set the record straight and establish what their jam really was. The trouble is the documentary only does this in the most superficial fashion.

Just when we think we are getting somewhere in regards to the details of their music and its ideological underpinnings, Smith dances away into the next part of their careers with so many questions still lingering. Part of this smartly keeps the film light on its feet, as music documentaries can and should be entertaining as they channel a group’s music, while much of it just feels shallow.

All of this may play well to existing fans of the band, but there is also a good chance that much of the documentary will still feel just a bit too familiar. While they aren’t nearly as known now as they were at the height of their popularity, most everyone has heard at least one of their songs and been able to pick up on what it was they were getting at in terms of their self-proclaimed commentary. Smith gestures towards discussing how they were an extension of Dadaism, an often satirical art movement born out of the horrors of war, though never gives it much more beyond that. It ends up coming across as half-baked and insular musings rather than analysis.

It is then that you realize the lack of any other voices, be they historians, journalists, or music critics, is likely where this disconnect stems from. Though not all documentaries need to have a million interview subjects chiming in with the same pithy observations over and over, this one could have at least had someone offer more perspective separate from the band members.

We occasionally hear some other voices via old news clips and talk show appearances, though this can’t replace the value of other experts contributing in some way to the documentary. Instead, it’s all Devo at every turn. This could be enough for fans who are looking to hear from their favorite musicians, but they may also be the precise ones seeking more depth to the film.

Devo may consider themselves to be misunderstood and, yet, after watching this documentary not much is done to fix this. For all the ground and years it covers there remains a distance to the whole affair. This is due to both the decision to only hear from the band and the fact that the film is trying to take on so much in such a short time. There is never a moment to let anything breathe or ask that one additional question that might get something more out of the group.

When it draws to a close you’re still left wondering so much about them beyond the many bullet points. Devo left an indelible mark on music before fading from the public consciousness. This forgettable documentary about them doesn’t do that first bit and just skips to the fading away part, leaving a sense that they will always remain misunderstood when the attempt to understand them is done as broadly as this.

It takes a group that bumped up against the boundaries and instead just operates within them. In the end, it was the documentary itself that embodies the idea of devolution in all the wrong ways that can’t quite be whipped into shape.

“Devo” is a sales title at Sundance. 

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