"101" - Revisiting Depeche Mode's Concert Film 25 Years Later
By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Twenty five years ago, as "101" hit theaters, Depeche Mode experienced the crest of a U.S. breakthrough. Throughout the '80s, the British group had grown a cult following as an alternative outfit, before the scene had gone major, and a synth band, when only guitars were accorded respect. As the film shows, though, such things were changing, and DM's fortunes were on the rise. "Music for the Masses," the band's most recent release had spawned multiple singles, with "Strangelove," "Never Let Me Down Again" and "Behind the Wheel" all cracking the Hot 100 charts in the U.S., and the Top 10 in Dance Club play. To commemorate the U.S. leg of a lengthy tour ("101" referred to the number of shows they performed), Depeche Mode's management reached out to documentarian D.A. Pennebaker. The filmmaker, best known for the Bob Dylan's "Don't Look Back" and "Monterey Pop," hadn't heard of the band, but flew to northwest to see them play, and was struck by the unique fervency of their following. He quickly signed on. The band envisioned a film that examined their place in the '80s landscape, but Pennebaker scuttled the idea, desiring something more spontaneous. Presaging the reality entertainment era, he recruited a bus load of Depeche Mode diehards and filmed them trailing the group across the U.S. south toward the tour's climactic "Concert for the Masses" at Pasadena's Rose Bowl. When it emerged in '89, critics dismissed "101," and seemed puzzled by Pennebaker's involvement. Boomer writers saw the band as empty and hopelessly juvenile, and thought the fan footage superficial. Seen today, the film flashes with brilliant moments, and suffers a bit from the sense of opportunities missed. Pennebaker is a verite artist, and his best films represent lightning in a film can. He didn't make Janis Joplin or Otis Redding perform brilliantly at the Monterey Pop Festival, but he captured their incandescence timelessly. With the right subject--an amphetamine driven, combative Bob Dylan, or a drawling, charismatic James Carville (in "The War Room")--he communicates the allure of genius. In "101," those elements are not as readily available. Reserved, likable, and thoroughly grounded, Depeche Mode come off as likable hard workers here. Singer Dave Gahan has star quality--a performative flair, and a unique mix of confidence, neediness, and cherubic sex appeal. Only he among the band develops a rapport with the camera offstage, complaining from time to time about the toils and pressures of the tour. Andy Fletcher and Alan Wilder seem happy at Depeche Mode's success, but in no mood to dwell on its "meaning." In this way, "101" plays as almost a comic opposite of profundity-seeking "Rattle and Hum," particularly during a Nashville record store visit, where songwriter Martin Gore shyly buys Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash cassettes, explaining, humbly, he's just begun listening to country music. Gore feels like the film's missing puzzle piece. In a moving sequence, we see a wailing fan sing along with "Blasphemous Rumors," writhing with naked intimacy. Where does that music that affects such fans so deeply come from? And why does Gore return again and again to themes of sexual power dynamics, and adolescent betrayal? One finds no such answers here. Instead, the songwriter hovers like a specter throughout, strumming guitars, often in skimpy bondage gear, and conveying the sense he's psychically miles away. Watching the movie in '89, I thought the fans in the bus were the most sophisticated people I'd ever seen. Insanely stylish, presciently metrosexual, and socially confident, they seemed beamed in from some other world. Today I found them touching. Both ahead of their time, and touchingly free of any social media influenced affectations, they come off like slightly hipper than average urban youths. Observers slammed them at the time for their contempt for the South, but might the fault actually have lain with whoever organized a trip to Graceland for them? The main fault with the fan sections seems instead to be Pennebaker's inability to link them to the band and their performances. A blazing sequence that cuts between the youths spontaneously dance on the their bus to "Nothing" and the band performing the song live richly creates such a connection, but it's an anomaly. More often, the sections--charming though they may be--come off as filler. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kR2E4Is_6oE Watching the band conduct themselves with a pleasant efficiency in "101" feels bittersweet now, knowing the troubles that lay ahead for them. "Music for the Masses" was followed by the smash "Violator," which spawned their first U.S. Top 10 hits, and established them as superstars. Their tour for 1993's "Songs of Faith and Devotion," however, was marked by dissolution and self-destruction, with Gahan sliding into a severe heroin addiction, and Gore into alcoholism. Alan Wilder left the band in 1995. Speaking about the film at a San Francisco retrospective, Pennebaker called it his favorite. He, and co-director Chris Hegedus, clearly felt a bond with the band, and praised them for their artistic daring in allowing moments like the promoters' counting their receipts during "Everything Counts" to remain in the final cut over their managers' objections. Time has been kind to Depeche Mode's reputation, as writers who grew up with their music have retroactively enshrined their works, which hold up well, as classics. "101," today, feels like a mixed bag. It is a good film, in that, if you like "Stripped" on record (and who doesn't?), you'll really like it being performed here, and, likewise, the big moments, such as the spontaneous sing along to "Everything Counts" and the arm waving that ends "Never Let Me Down" still raise the hair on one's arms. In terms of what the filmmakers were looking for, though, in following the band, and documenting their fans, the threads never coalesce in the way one might hope. Lightning may not always strike . . . but nostalgia still tastes sweet.