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Around Town: De-Evolution Is Real: The Restored Films of DEVO @ AFI Silver Theater — 5/16/24

Devo Delights with Restored Films, Storytelling at the AFI Silver Theater
By Christine Hall

New Wave icons Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of the band Devo recently delighted fans on at the AFI Silver Theater with stories pertaining to their five-decade music career and their recently restored short films — what we now call music videos — from the 1970s and ‘80s.

The films are strung together in a lengthy presentation called De-Evolution Is Real: The Restored Films of DEVO, which showcases their collective strangeness.

The important thing to know about the band is the founders, Mothersbaugh and Casale, started as art students at Kent State University who were traumatized by the infamous 1970 shootings in which members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four. A fusion of artistic ambitions and political anger spurred the Devo men to present a visual spectacle influenced by a disillusioned worldview. As artists, they were adamant about an expression that melded film and music.

The other thing to know about Devo is when the band started in the 1970s, it was before MTV launched a mega-platform for music videos and before synthpop became a dominate music genre in the 1980s. Music videos and synthesizers were not the usual band doings in 1970s America.

Devo’s founding premise and name concern the notion of “de-evolution” — that humans are regressing to primitive beings. It may be an extremely dubious contention, given all the data showing human progress over time. But clearly this glum worldview fueled the creative visions of the Devo men, spurring demented music videos that were further influenced by the early 20th century Dada art movement and 1920s-30s-era avant-garde films. (See, for example, The Complete Truth About De-Evolution — Part 1 and Part 2, respectively.)

The Dada art movement emerged amid the horrors of the First World War, inspiring art in multiple formats that, as the Tate aptly puts it, was “satirical and nonsensical in nature” — a striking parallel with Devo’s art and the Vietnam War so many decades later.

It’s hard to convey in words what transpires in Devo videos, presented at AFI Silver Theater on May 16. One vignette has to do with camp-yet-harrowing ineptitude of luminescent nuclear reactor workers (“It Takes a Worried Man,” 1979), purportedly filmed at the (now-defunct) Goodyear “World of Rubber” factory in the band’s hometown of Akron, Ohio. Oopsie-daisy with the nuclear waste barrels!

Watch the official music video for “It Takes a Worried Man” by Devo on DailyMotion:

“Jocko Homo (In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution)” from 1976 may be the most Dada-esque short film, chock full of bizarre imagery. The term Jocko Homo was intended to mean something like “monkey man.” The video features an unfortunate masked boy-man-stooge called “Booji Boy” and, later, be-goggled singer Mark Mothersbaugh manically holding forth on de-evolution and the defining Devo question: Are we not men? (A: We are Devo.)

Watch the official music video for “Jocko Homo (In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution)” by Devo on YouTube:

The most well-known Devo video is probably “Whip It” from 1981, featuring the futuristic-looking band sporting red “energy dome” hats and performing at a dude ranch set. At the AFI event, Mothersbaugh and Casale mentioned the inspiration for the video characters in westernwear — a 1962 issue of The Dude magazine, a “cheesy” men’s magazine. The original article concerned a stuntman who moves out of Los Angeles, opens a dude range in Arizona, and entertains audiences by whipping his stripper wife. These themes are replicated in the video.

Watch the official music video for “Whip It” by Devo on YouTube:

“We were always looking at junk and low art and transgressive stuff and cheesy stuff, as well as very pretentious high art stuff,” Casale explained. It’s all part of the “high and the low” of Devo — the high brow and low brow, in other words.

Remarkably, up until MTV launched on August 1, 1981, the band’s record label didn’t know what to do with the films Devo had been making for several years. Warner Bros., said Casale, “thought Mark and I were just foolish artists that they were tolerating who wanted to use their… production promo money for making these useless films instead of cardboard standups and t-shirts and things like that.”

“The marketing department at Warners couldn’t figure out why we wanted to make these films,” added Mothersbaugh. “They didn’t know what to do with them after we made them.”

The band benefited from having what Casale called a “production deal” with the record company. “They just let us do what we wanted to do to see if we could make them money,” Casale surmised. “So we controlled that budget, and we made “Whip It” for $15,000 in a 16-hour day [in] our rehearsal hall.”

The Devo duo were joined at the AFI event by film restorationist Peter Conheim, who worked for years on the project. He says it was a difficult process because he and his team had to not only find the original film negatives but then recreate them from scratch. When the band started making films in 1974/75, they filmed on 16 millimeter film, up until around 1982. After the first few films, the editing was done on the lower-quality medium of video — hence the need to painstakingly recreate them for the restoration project. “They’re counterfeit restorations,” quipped Conheim.

The AFI Silver Theater is a restored Art Deco theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, built in 1938 by movie palace architect John Eberson, later saved from demolition by the Art Deco Society of Washington and other community activists, and restored and reopened by the American Film Institute in 2003.

View the Devo Q&A at the AFI Silver Theater on YouTube.

Keep up with Devo performances and news via their Facebook page.

View the band’s videos on their YouTube channel.

View the AFI Silver Theater calendar and film series.