spirits in the forest

Spirits In The Forest review – Anton Corbijn gets the balance just right with fan movie

As is customary these days with anything that Depeche Mode create, Spirits In The Forest is going polarise the fanbase – that much is guaranteed.

The 90-minute film, directed by long-time collaborator Anton Corbijn, is due to be screened “One Night Only!” on November 21, 2019, 18 months after the end of the Global Spirit Tour.

The film “captures the energy and spectacle of the band’s performance from the tour along with a deeper look into how their music and shows have been woven into the fabric of their fans’ lives,” according to the press materials circulating ahead of its launch in cinemas worldwide.

A special preview screening held in London attracted journos, critics bloggers, fans and a smattering of figures associated with the band, including live keyboard player Peter Gordeno, manager “Baron” Jonathan Kessler, their assistant through the 1980s and early-1990s Daryl Bamonte, singer Dave Gahan’s brother Phil and Corbijn, who took part in a short Q&A at the end of the film.

The first element that will inevitably irk some fans is that Spirits In The Forest is not a concert film, despite being loosely based on the band’s triumphant final gigs on the last tour in Berlin.

There is (not calculated with a watch) around 30% of the film that is solely footage from those shows. More on that later.

The film, instead, concentrates on the journey (metaphorical and actual) that six fans take to get to the gigs which took place during those blisteringly hot few days in the German capital.

We see Dicken Schrader, perhaps the best known of the group following his wonderful and hugely popular cover versions of Depeche Mode songs with two of his children, talking about his kids and their exposure to the world of viral social media.

Or Liz Dwyer, who speaks candidly about her battle with illness. And Carine, the victim of a terrible accident.

They all have stories about real life, about being a fan and how their worlds have been affected by the band that they love. It is their emotional connection to the band that is the basis for the film.

There are some genuinely moving moments in the film, it’s worth saying, illustrating how clever the filmmaker has been in managing to keep on the right side of the sentimental line (it could’ve easily bounced over it in some places).

There is a lot of powerful storytelling in Spirits but perhaps where it also excels is in the visual department.

It is beautifully framed and filmed (the deliberate graininess of the Super 8-shot Depeche videos of the late-1980s and early-1990s are a distant memory), giving it a hugely cinematic feel.

Interestingly, the concert footage is also shot in the same way, providing the viewer with a documentary-style and very unique perspective of the band’s performance.

Devotional, Live In Berlin or One Night In Paris it is not. And that is what makes the small amount of concert footage highly watchable, with very few wide shots and lots of close-ups of the band, Gahan especially.

Whether or not that editing, lighting and shooting style will be carried through to the concert-only version to be released in 2020 remains to be seen.

Spirits In The Forest is – in stark contrast to D A Pennebaker-directed 101, the 1988 Depeche Mode film that it will naturally be compared to – a poignant and thought-provoking piece of work that does not have (m)any of the laughs or moments of irony that have become associated with Corbijn’s filmmaking with the band over the years.

You won’t find Gahan fooling around backstage with the crew or Gordeno talking about his keyboard rig (this stuff is on the internet anyway these days) or Gore painting his fingernails pre-gig.

It is, clearly intentionally, a lot deeper than that.

Given the subject matter, Corbijn has managed to bring together all of the elements with both care and, arguably, a fair amount of bravery.

It is certainly his best work with the band for many years, including stage films, videos, concert DVDs, artwork and photography. And yet, the band members have no role in it other than performance. Again, a gutsy strategy as it is a Depeche Mode-fronted documentary.

No other director would have been able to convince Depeche Mode to make a film such as Spirits In The Forest – a demonstration, if one were ever needed, of the relationship that has been built since the A Question Of Time video in 1986.

It is a “movie” in all those grand and powerful senses of the word. It has a narrative and style that is fairly unique in music-related filmmaking and should be of interest to anyone who is curious about the way a band – any band, to be honest – can connect with its fan base.

The often rather cringeworthy slogan “Depeche Mode is the soundtrack to my life” is finally given some credibility and relevance in Spirits In The Forest.

Well done.

* HALO co-author David McElroy also came to the screening. Here’s his review of the evening.

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