I’m a bit weird when it comes to music. I struggle with most songs that have lyrics, mostly because I find them so hard to ‘hear’ unless I know what’s being said (I believe that’s a result of my Autism Spectrum Disorder in part). So in general, I’m a fan of music that relies instead on layered sounds and melodies, where the focus can be on mood, atmosphere and discovering hidden layers to the track, the more you listen to it. Generally, that takes the form of well produced electronic music; repeated melodies or short sections of recurring lyrics work well for me. What many people would call repetitive – I instead find comfort in the ordered construction of such tracks. I tend to not be a fan of most popular music; not because of any hipsterish tendencies, more because I like to be able to digest a piece of music in my own time and on my own terms – I’m not a fan of hearing music on the radio, for example, ad nauseum – when contemporary and popular, it’s often heard anywhere and everywhere. As good as a song may be, I may not succumb to its charms until many years after its drifted from the mainstream.
There are exceptions of course. Depeche Mode are one of these exceptions; a band that – certainly in their heyday – could be classified as ‘pop’ and were heard on the radio or on heavy rotation on TV channels such as MTV, but still appealed to me regardless. Part of this is that, despite their popularity, they always felt like they were making intelligently constructed music that wasn’t afraid to push into new, often darker territory than your average pop song. It helped that they felt like they were growing as I did; by the time I was an angsty, confused teenager, they were moving into the darker, heavier Songs of Faith and Devotion period – without losing a bit of what made them special in the first place.
They were always unique among pop bands for being at the apex of lots of different genres, appealing to music fans across a wide spectrum of tastes. And yet, they still always feel like the ultimate outsiders; it fascinates me that, given their enduring popularity and ability to – even now – fill huge stadiums on massive, global tours, they have never had a number one single in the UK.
I’ve seen them on tour twice myself – as well as having plenty of DVDs and Blu-Rays of their concerts – and they’re an absolutely phenomenal live band. Their staging is brilliant; lead singer Dave Gahan is a master at working the crowd and principal songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/sometime lead singer Martin Gore’s glittery stage wear and makeup is always a welcome addition to the setup – but the less said about Andy Fletcher’s awkward clapping and waving the better; for a long time now, it’s been established that he’s primarily there because he always has been, which is very apparent (I think the official line is that he’s almost in a management role now, with little input into what the band does musically). Though not ‘official’ members, for many years their live band has also consisted of Peter Gordeno – on keyboards and backing vocals – and Christian Eigner on drums.
Despite my familiarity with their live act – which is full of hits spanning their career, as well as a few more recent tracks (as is often the case with their shows) – I still get excited at seeing more footage of them doing what they do. The arm waving extended outro of Never Let Me Down Again, for example, never gets any less breathtaking.
So I was really excited to see Spirits in the Forest. Directed by Anton Corbijn – who gave the band a much more defined, consistent and mature look when first collaborating with them in the 80s – Spirits in the Forest is less a concert film and more a film about the band’s fans, covering the way that Depeche Mode have affected their lives. There’s concert footage of course – the fans in question all attend a gig and we do get to see them in the moment – but we spend an awful lot more time finding out about the impact of the band on a very diverse range of people, with some incredibly interesting and, in most cases, powerfully affecting stories to tell.
Stories of heartache, loss and tragedy – but also triumph over adversity and ultimately, we’re left with uplifting, hopeful and joyous endings for everyone. I loved getting to know everyone we meet over the course of the film and it was great – as a lifelong fan – to agree with their assessments of why Depeche Mode have been such a constant, reassuring and relevant presence throughout their lives.
It’s difficult for me to step back and assess the film from the point of view of someone who isn’t already intimately familiar with the band and their music; there’s no recap of their long and storied history – it’s all about the fans. Fans of Depeche Mode tend to be very devoted and get to know the band’s history very intimately – so perhaps there was no need to go over old ground again, when fans already know all there is to know about them.
In any case, I find myself wanting to spend more time with the people who form the core of Spirits in the Forest. As diverse as they are, they’re all people I’d happily get to know better. With the backdrop of the band’s typically electrifying performance bringing them – and the viewer – together, Spirits in the Forest is a wonderfully emotional journey to take with some very special people (and Depeche Mode!).
Though the film is unlikely to convert non-fans to the music itself, I found the diverse narratives of each featured fan to be incredibly compelling. Even if you’re not a fan of the musical thread that links them all, it’s hard not to be moved and touched by their candid, touching stories. It was a bold move to make a concert movie that isn’t about the band featured (and barely features a complete song from beginning to end), but it’s one that definitely paid off.
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