An entertaining documentary deep dive into the eighties new wave pioneers Devo, who rose to fame thanks to their hit single Whip It.
PLOT: The story of new wave band Devo, who rose to fame from their smash hit “Whip It.”
REVIEW: If all you know about the band Devo is that they were those guys in the weird hats singing “Whip It,” you need to check out this doc from Chris Smith. In addition to making the cult fave American Movie, Smith has made several notable music documentaries over the years, including the recent Netflix documentary about Wham, but he has unique subjects here.
To put it bluntly, the members of Devo are among the most unlikely rock stars of all time. The brainchild of Kent State art students Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis, along with their friend Mark Mothersbaugh, the band began as a performance art satire. In early shows, they would play droning sounds and punish their audience, with Devo short for de-evolution, which was their take on the culture. Against all odds, the boys and some new additions like Gerald’s brother Bob and drummer Alan Myers actually had considerable musical talent. Their experimental tracks caught the eye of David Bowie, who connected them with Brian Eno, and the rest was history.
Devo were considered exceptionally provocative in the early eighties, and their music was only part of their art. Their whole look was manufactured to critique how they saw society going, while their music videos, which band member Gerald Casale directed, were unique and surreal. These videos and their look made these guys rockstars, with their ascension not coincidently tying into the rise of MTV, who were starved for content in the early days and played their videos constantly.
But, as the documentary shows, their fame was short-lived, with them essentially over as a band by 1984. It’s interesting to hear the band members explain precisely what happened, with a divide between them wanting to remain faithful to the band’s original mission and being taken in by their rising fame and the money that came with it. As Smith shows, Devo was never able to make a hit that even came close to the success of “Whip It”. While songs like “Through Being Cool” and “Working in a Coal Mine” did well enough to keep them from the one-hit-wonder label, they were seen as a fad or a one-off in many circles.
The exciting thing about their story is that there doesn’t seem to have ever been any significant drama regarding the band’s split, with everyone moving on to other things. Mark Mothersbaugh has had a great career as a composer, scoring everything from Rugrats to Rushmore to Thor: Ragnarok to Cocaine Bear. Through it all, Smith includes plenty of music and anecdotes, such as a priceless one about Mick Jagger. One of their first songs was a (great) cover of “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)”, which they had to play for Mick Jagger to get permission to release. For the first minute of the song, he pretended to hate it until leaping up and dancing in classic Jagger fashion as it went on, giving them his blessing.
The only thing about the doc is that it focuses explicitly on the band, and you don’t learn much about the band members themselves. However, this is kind of in keeping with the way they always marketed themselves, as the band was an idea rather than about anyone as an individual. If you’re a Devo fan, you’ll like this, but even if all you know about them is Whip It, check it out anyway. You might be surprised and become a new fan.