Review: Depeche Mode – Spirits In The Forest

The Picturehouse cinema in Exeter was bustling a good thirty minutes before the timetabled screening I was to attend. Understandably, a Depeche Mode movie might be considered a “specialist” event and was therefore relegated to the smaller of the establishment’s two screens; the other housing the Hollywood spawned Ford v Ferrari featuring bum-on-seat catalysts Matt Damon and Christian Bale. I surveyed the crowd, largely unable to gauge which film each punter would be attending. They seemed so…well, normal; though every now and then I would spy a distinctive grey t shirt from beneath a dark jacket. They were the easy targets. The age range and gender of people awaiting the showings that night appeared so broad as to make it tricky to identify the “typical Depeche Mode fan” amongst the thrall of cinema goers.
I fully expected numbers to thin down to a manageable amount when the audience for Messrs Damon and Bale were allowed to take their seats, yet what appeared to be only a handful of viewers made their way into Screen One. I was surprised to find that the vast majority of people were there to see the Mode film; a stark contrast to my own secluded attraction to the band which began during the mid-80s. In those days it wasn’t “cool” to like a band made up of primarily keyboards and no drummer. Bands such as Mode may have changed dramatically, but sadly in some rock-orientated quarters those attitudes still prevail. The punters organised themselves patiently and politely into a queue as the doors opened.
Seats were not allocated at the time of booking, making for a situation not dissimilar to the usual standing room bunfight at your typical live concert. Before long, the theatre was largely full and the air was thick with conversation between partners, friends and strangers finding that the community that would be depicted in the forthcoming film was wholeheartedly represented in the cinema in physical form. I personally found myself sitting next to a gentleman who had also attended my own first Depeche Mode concert at the Crystal Palace stadium in 1993. We reminisced together like old friends whilst having never met before that evening.
In 1989, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker produced 101, a now somewhat legendary-amongst-fans documentary that recorded the final stages of Depeche Mode’s Music For The Masses tour. The film cleverly depicted the multi-layered aspects of the band, its music and fans in a voyeuristic and immersive format . To this day, specific scenes spark conversation between devotees and the piece stands as an accurate and affecting record of what it was to be an internationally successful touring musician or, as I readily related to, a young music enthusiast during the late eighties. Ironically, the band’s original premise for the film had been exactly that: to convey where exactly Depeche Mode fitted into the decade, yet Pennebaker instead insisted that such a brief would create a stilted, informational piece and a more natural, unscripted storytelling approach would serve them better. As it turned out, the film delivered their wishes and far more.
The universal effectiveness of 101 came largely from the masterstroke to concentrate on detailing its story through the eyes and experiences of a gathering of fans rather than the band themselves. As such, Anton Corbijn took this element as inspiration for his new film, taking it to a more extreme level by pulling the focus firmly away from the musicians and making a small group of specially selected multinational fans the stars of the show. It is their lives and their relationships which fill the heart of Spirit’s 94 minute running time and in contrast to Pennebaker’s film, those hoping to gain some further insight into the older members of Depeche Mode may be sorely disappointed. Their role is purely in performance form; the attraction drawing the disparate souls together both for the final show in the band’s 2018 tour and in the proverbial spirit that Corbijn wishes to capture.
This is where I bring (obvious) comparisons with 101 to a close. Story is equally a priority within Spirits In The Forest, but the tales are solely those of the six individuals, with Mode, aside from their obvious musical influence, sidelined. The fans’ lives are unique; each with their own personal battles and circumstances. We meet and learn about them in short vignettes; their personalities, passions and sometimes incredible experiences trickling throughout the film in spoken word.
If Spirits is to be considered a successor to any previous Mode release, then Corbijn’s Strange and Strange Too act as artistic reference points. In his work covering the tail-end of Black Celebration era Mode through to Violator, monologuing actors were interspersed amongst Corbijn’s music videos with fictional tales acting as the glue between the songs, creating a non-stop short film from the elements. The films offer a stylistic template to much of Spirits of the Forest, with real lives replacing those of the actors.
Similarly, Spirits opens in a manner that continues throughout its playtime. For example, a 22 year-old girl, Indra from Mongolia talks of a traditional life at home with her mother in a small tower block apartment. The songs of Depeche Mode allowed her to reach past what was expected of her and be aware of the world beyond her family and country. She learned the English language via their lyrics. At best, these sequences give us a window beyond our own cultural experiences; the individuals living within offering up their own stories to camera and I found myself absorbed quickly into the details of her home life and how Depeche Mode’s music fits into that. This, for me, is the greatest strength of the film.
It is worth noting that Depeche Mode themselves are the lone representatives of Great Britain on screen, with the featured fans being drawn from elsewhere in the globe. One senses that at a time when their home country battles with its own identity and its place amongst its neighbours, Depeche Mode feel the need to facilitate their multinational success toward representing their own, unrestricted identities as citizens of planet Earth. The film, as a whole, seeks to locate that which makes us similar whilst celebrating our differences. Our travails, our failures, our successes and our determination to become something better are facets indicative of the human being as a species regardless of our birthplace.
Depeche Mode as a physical presence pop up at regular intervals; usually illustrating notable and affecting points in their fans’ stories with a relevant song extracted from their live show. Highlights include the poignant Precious for a father desperate to maintain his long distance relationship with his children after a divorce and their efforts inadvertently sending them beyond expectation to become stars of YouTube. For the charming comedy of a Romanian individual seeking to recreate the video to Enjoy The Silence in the mountains surrounding his home, his story surpasses the claustrophobic regime into which he was born, bringing forth a joyful celebration of reaching out across borders and creating some breathtaking photography in the process. If the film hits home with any one profundity, it is that when it comes to Depeche Mode’s followers (as with any other artist who attracts devotion of a certain level) there is no such thing as a “typical fan”.
While I wholeheartedly applaud and adored the human aspect to Spirits Of The Forest, with its beautiful cinematography that we have come to expect from Corbijn (at times, one could freeze-frame any point in the movie to create an image worthy of unlimited record covers or art prints) the film doesn’t obviously appear to progress in its texture, stifling the journey for the viewer. While we are drip-fed tidbits of information and emotionally resonant memories from the fans; the live performances funnel towards the greatest hits that we have come to expect for any show’s climax. Even with the six fans coming together in attendance towards its end, the film still feels a little limited in tone. By the time of its conclusion the film feels “over before it’s begun”. The disparate nature of the fans’ stories and the live performances lacking a cohesive identity, with one interrupting the other rather than complimenting its partner. By keeping the two elements at arm’s length from each other, I for one, detected a physical distance between the band and their fans that I have been increasingly aware of through the years, despite the obvious passion that stems from that relationship. This, I fear, is the price paid for a worldwide career that regularly fills stadiums, leaving little room for intimacy.
The complete Berlin show is to be released on blu-ray in the near future as a full concert recording without any interruption from the fans, largely, I assume, due to the dismay from viewers that complete 101 concert footage has never existed, let alone be made available for public consumption. I might argue that, while the bands’ performance on screen in Spirit is as impressive and affecting as Depeche Mode have ever been (with Mode in their most “rock band” shape so far), a cut of the documentary featuring just the fans and interspersed with limited, purely illustrative clips of Mode might be just as valid. When archive footage appears in passing, there’s no denying that the nostalgia evoked is a powerful thing, illustrating the passage of time in both the fans and band’s lifetimes.
In limiting their involvement to that of figureheads, Depeche Mode find themselves sidelined by the more openly human aspect of the featured fans. As ever, their material shines, bringing hope and meaning to their admirers, and their performances, while uncomfortably slick to this older ear, are captured in the cleverly intimate coverage of a massive stadium event (the featured fans literally framed in close focus due to German filming restrictions) and I look forward to the full length depiction of the show itself. But overall, I cannot escape the feeling that one element distracts from the other and a number of somewhat fragmented arcs build only marginally by the end of the feature. Despite some extremely emotive and surprising moments from the participants, the film fails to fully build upon those nuggets to the next stage and while some genuinely affecting factors in the lives of the six stars are revealed along the way, it is left to the final few live songs to provide a satisfactory conclusion to their stories. An encore that hasn’t been earned, you might say, as aside from the fans telling us what the songs mean to them, and despite the extensive live footage, there is a lack of integral heart or artistry from Mode as individuals. Perhaps they feel that their music speaks for itself, though I fear that anyone other than a dyed-in-the-wool Depeche Mode fan might understandably ask what the fuss is all about. While I found the film as a piece on human storytelling entertaining, moving and fascinating in ways that I didn’t expect, I also found it marginally underwhelming and unsatisfying as a whole.

Score: 7/10