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Devo On Sundance Return, Chris Smith Directed Documentary & Next 50 Years

“This documentary is just to try and get some of the information down on film somewhere, before it’ll scatters away,” admits Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh of the documentary about the band that premieres at the Sundance Film Festival tonight. “I just like the idea that this information is being collected,” the front man adds.

In a festival full of music documentaries this year on legends like Luther Vandross, Brian Eno and the star studded 1985 recording of “We Are the World,” the Chris Smith directed Devo may hit even a little bit closer to home. After all, the film represents a return to Park City for the band. Back in 1996, Devo was the off-screen closing act of sorts to that year’s Sundance Film Festival. Clad in prison stripes and their trademark Red Energy Dome hats, the “Whip It” band’s performance was even made into a movie of its own with Butch Devo and the Sundance Gig.

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This year Devo will also be playing Sundance, on and off-screen. The band have a show, first exclusivley reported by Deadline earlier this month, at the newly opened Main Street venue The Marquis  on January 22.

Before tonight’s premiere and Monday’s gig, Devo members Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, along with Sundance vet, Tiger King and Wham! director Smith spoke with me about the new movie, Sundance 1996, as well as the past, the present and the future of the band.

DEADLINE: So, what is it like to return to the scene of the crime?

MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: Well, I think we’re all we’re all for it. You know, it’s kind of nice. It’s kind of nice to come back. I saw some photos from that show recently, and I forgot we were in prison outfits.
GERALD CASALE: Yes, prison outfits rented from a Western costume store

MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: Right? They looked pretty good.

DEADLINE: Chris, 24 years ago, You were a Sundance Grand Jury winner with American Movie, your first Sundance win. Obviously, with films like The Pool, you’ve been back to the festival since, but  what is that like coming back with Devo in 2024 in the context of 1999.

CHRIS SMITH: My first film was actually in Sundance in 1996. It was American Job. We had one screening that everybody was really excited about, lots of people were there. In our second screening, 11 people showed up to. Devo was playing and they scheduled it at the same time as our second screening.

DEADLINE: Now I’m getting it. This is a revenge film.

MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: (LAUGHS) Getting back at us!

DEADLINE: Along with the movie premiere on Sunday, Devo is playing a gig on Monday. Anything special people should look forward to?

GERALD CASALE: Well, the venue will be heated this year. Unlike 20 years ago, when we played in freezing cold because the heat failed.

DEADLINE: Speaking of heat, Chris, this film has attracted a lot of attention. Attention because of the subject, and because of your involvement as director. After the Wham! film, what attracted you to doing a movie about Devo?

CHRIS SMITH: I grew up in Michigan, and Devo was a huge influence on me and my friends. It was something that got better over time – the band, that concept.

It was so inspiring for me as a young person to learn about Devo. I just felt like there was an opportunity for people to have that experience again. You know, it was well worth the time.

DEADLINE: Why?

CHRIS SMITH: Well, I don’t think that what they were saying back then has become any less urgent for today.

Chris Smith, director of “The Pool”, winner of the Special Jury Prize for Singularity of Vision (Photo by Fred Hayes/WireImage for Sundance Film Festival)
Chris Smith, director of “The Pool”, winner of the Special Jury Prize for Singularity of Vision (Photo by Fred Hayes/WireImage for Sundance Film Festival)

DEADLINE: It’s remarkable to think that Devo has been around 50 years, since 1973 when you guys first formed the band at Kent State University. Looking at the film, what has 50 years of Devo been like?

MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: This documentary is just to try and get some of the information down on film somewhere, before it’ll scatters away. Some of the people that would have been nice to have interviewed are gone already. I just like the idea that this information is being collected.

GERALD CASALE: It’s a major train stop on the ride to oblivion. Like Mark said, it needed to be collected,  codified and collected and aggregated, just as a marker. And, and that’s what this quote documentary is.

MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: If you think that we’re like at the halfway point.

DEADLINE: What do you mean?

MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: We spent the first 50 years talking about man being the one species out of touch with nature. The next 50 years. we’re going be talking about how to change that. About mutations as solutions and everybody doing positive mutations instead of just sitting there and watching things fall apart. I think by the year 2073 will be you know, we’ll be holding up we’ll play Sundance one more time, I think, but will probably be in in better shape because we won’t be trapped in these like the failing physical forms we’re in right now.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON – NOVEMBER 07: Devo performs onstage at the Paramount Theatre during the 50th Anniversary Farewell Tour on November 07, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON – NOVEMBER 07: Devo performs onstage at the Paramount Theatre during the 50th Anniversary Farewell Tour on November 07, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images)

DEADLINE: Bob, what’s your perspective on 50 years of Devo?

BOB MOTHERSBAUGH: It really seems like 50 years.

MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, Bob was saying the other day, I felt like 49 (LAUGHS).

DEADLINE: How did this film come about Chris?

CHRIS SMITH: We have a mutual friend named Chris Holmes. He was obsessed with Devo and wanted to see a movie about Devo. He got us all to go to a dinner, like four years ago, and it became this film. So, it takes a while. it’s funny.

DEADLINE: Does the era of the 1980s, your own adolescence, play a part in this?

CHRIS SMITH: To some degree.

You were in high school and you’d learn about Devo. You learned about that Andy Kaufman VHS and then you learn about the Church of the Sub Genius. It was such a great time. And I feel like Devo was such a part of that opening of your mind that you could do things and look at the world differently, and meet people who also saw things differently.  When I went to college, there was this guy, I went by his dorm room and he had an Energy Dome in his room.  I immediately was like, Oh, well, we’re going to be friends.

DEADLINE: Did you have a similar Wham! experience?

CHRIS SMITH: Well, I lived through that time, so I guess kind of.

I wasn’t necessarily a fan of Wham!, but I like good stories, you know, and that was a good story.

This was a little bit different because it was a band that I was actually interested in, and was a fan of. Still, I think the approach is always the same as you’re trying to find something, to find the story. I didn’t know about the origin of Devo even though I was a fan. There’s a lot of information that’s in the movie that I didn’t know well.

DEADLINE: Such as?

CHRIS SMITH: Just in terms of the way that they went out to LA and that didn’t work. Then they sort of found their home at CBGBs and Max’s. I didn’t know about the connection to David Bowie and the recording the album with Brian Eno, All that was new to me. I think it may be new to a lot of people.

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