For American Gen X’ers of a certain stripe, Chris Smith’s “Devo” is a trip through time, but even viewers unfamiliar with the deadpan music group are likely to emerge as loyal converts. A zippy, zany, whip(it)-smart documentary, it details the formation of Ohio’s New Wave enfants terribles — and is also the far superior of the two Sundance docs this year to feature U2 producer Brian Eno (albeit in a much smaller role than in “Eno”).

Smith sets the stage via sit-down interview by letting the group’s key founders — Gerald “Jerry” Casale and “Rugrats” composer Mark Mothersbaugh — detail not only their initial meeting in 1970, but the era’s political frustrations too, out of which Devo would soon be born. From the Vietnam War abroad, to the Kent State Shooting on their own campus, Casale and Mothersbaugh sought to channel their frustrations, and their tongue-in-cheek perspective on the dumbing-down of modern America, in the form of avant-garde visual and performance art, from which their experimental and noise music would eventually grow. With a revolving door of collaborators in tow — including Mothersbaugh’s brothers, Bob and Jim — the band would soon find its niche and its unique admirers, the likes of Eno and David Bowie, who would help them ascend to relative stardom.

The film, though thoroughly detailed in its chronology, doesn’t touch on nearly all the Devo members who came and went over the years, but its factual accuracy pales in comparison to the chaotic enthusiasm it reflects, in keeping with the band and its musical subject matter. To find his visual fabric, Smith pulls from and remixes the kind of silent movies and horror classics that influenced some of Devo’s stylings (as well as the ’50s propaganda infomercials that represented the uptight conservative mainstream against which they fought). As a patchwork of ideas that were deeply culturally entrenched, it’s a Devo movie in spirit, spotlighting not just the group’s music, but its many pre-MTV experimental videos.

It’s hardly the most detailed inquiry into the group’s politics (let alone the full scope of America’s social unrest at the time). However, it adds enough context to Devo’s outlook that their surreal acts of audio-visual rebellion start to make sense, whether parents wearing chicken masks, or the frequent presence of ape imagery — short-hand for the “de-evolution” concept that gave them their moniker — or even the appearance and re-appearance of potatoes in their work. If you were wondering about the origin of their “spud” catchphrases, look no further.

And, if you’ve ever wrestled with reconciling Devo’s anti-consumerist satire with its eventual commercialism— or the supposed hypocrisy of any radical artist who finds mainstream success — the film has a surprisingly frank and lucid view of this dilemma too, in a manner that makes the sheer absurdity of an act like Devo feel digestible, without compromising what made it click. However, more than an explainer about the band, the film also functions as an embodiment of its work.

Editor Joe Scoma gives “Devo” a relentless pace, painting a portrait of a group, and an era, that borders on impressionistic. Its energetic montages draw the eye, and allow the viewer to settle into an electric rhythm — a state of hypnosis that, paradoxically, involves hyper-awareness. It only slows down in brief moments of discord or disappointment, or to punctuate absurd, ironic, or observational punchlines from the band members as they look back at their time in the sun.

Otherwise, the interviews and voiceovers become mere background noise to the flurry of images flying across the screen, as the film becomes a commendable marriage of subject and form. It comes imbued with the same twinkle in its eye, the same sense of mischief and Dadaist sensibility, that made Devo so alluring in the first place.

Grade: B+

“Devo” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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