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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.

Personal Jesus – World Violation Tour screen projections

The lack of a bona fide, official video from the World Violation Tour means many fans have forgotten about (or never even seen) the visual elements.

Although the stage design didn’t reach the creative heights of the Devotional Tour period a few years later, Violator‘s accompanying tour did hint at what was to come.

In particular, was the introduction of screens and video projections for the first time.

Illustrating how Depeche Mode’s artwork and visual design had finally been coordinated into an overall theme (roses, typefaces, style and overall aesthetic across sleeves, merchandise and the tour materials), collaborator Anton Corbijn created a series of projections to run behind the chaps as they performed some of the songs during the set.

Some of the films were basic but effective – Waiting For The Night‘s sparklers or Clean‘s hand brush painting of words, for example.

But Personal Jesus once again employed the cowboy theme from the video for the single release in the summer of 1989 (August 29, to be precise).

Rather than directly re-use the seedy bordello scenario from the Spanish desert, Corbijn re-shot the band in the US, essentially messing about with a few (cow)girls.

Whilst the full effect of the backdrops (each of the screens were at least 20-feet tall) can never be obtained by watching a clip online, languishing in a corner of the web is this apparent “rough cut” of the tour projections from Personal Jesus (including a pretty decent recording of the song).

Here it is:

And here is the official Depeche website’s tribute video, including Fletch about talking the “horse prank” from the original video for the single (poor fella) 🙂

Inside the complex mind of Anton Corbijn

It seemed unfathomable that, after years of enjoying his work and that of many of his collaborators, Anton Corbijn biopic Inside Out had passed me by.

But, finally, a copy of the Klaartje Quirijns-directed documentary arrived via Amazon last week.

Here is the trailer:

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Anton Corbijn is not an easy guy to understand.

To put the 60-year-old Dutchman into some kind of context for Depeche Mode fans, Corbijn is the man who – in Dave Gahan’s words – “visually saved” the band.

After over half a decade of videos of questionable quality, many of which you could almost sense that the band were massively out of their comfort zone, Corbijn was hired to direct the clip accompanying the release of A Question Of Time.

His efforts with the third single from Black Celebration ensured that both he and the band would work together again.

By the time of Violator and Songs Of Faith and Devotion he was all-in with Depeche, directing videos, creating gig stages and backdrops, official photos and record sleeves.

That relationship lasts to this day, with Corbijn most recently directing the Live In Berlin concert DVD (just don’t ask fans about the lack of a Blu-Ray version) in 2014.

He has, lest we forget, photographed countless music acts, actors, politicians and other high profile figures.

Corbijn’s head

Any Depeche fans who are eagerly expecting to hear lots of commentary from Corbijn about the band in the 84-minute documentary should look elsewhere – Inside Out feels more like GoPro strapped to the head of a psychiatrist as they interview the extremely complex Corbijn.

That’s not to say Depeche and some of the other acts who have received the Corbijn treatment fail to feature in the film.

George Clooney, Lou Reed, Metallica and U2 are shown acting, posing for photographs or larking about with the director.

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Inside Out, however, is not a conventional look at the life and times of a well known character – like its subject matter, Quirijns’s film is a lot more complex than that.

Corbijn’s childhood features prominently in the narrative running through Inside Out, in what looks like a deliberate (and successful) tactic by Quirijns to establish a link between his work and his experiences as a human being.

As many a Depeche fan will now, religious iconography and themes have often been at the centre of so much Corbijn’s work with the band.

And so there is a sizeable section of the film where Quirijns talks to Corbijn about his years growing up on the Dutch coast, the son of a preacher.

Those years appear, as far as Corbijn is willing to share, reasonably unremarkable in terms of major, life-affirming events.

But as is with so much of Corbijn’s later work, whether it is photography, music videos or films, there are multiple layers involved to the story.

Corbijn admits to being lonely – a feeling that cleverly manages to run throughout the pace and style of the documentary, and one which Corbijn himself tries to explain.

It would be fair to say that the varying degrees of loneliness (even in his latter years), combined with a religious upbringing and an obsession with how visuals – especially light – make people feel, may have contributed to some of the darker or unconventional interpretations of human emotion within his work.

Outside in

Inside Out is not a particularly uplifting piece of work, nor is it really meant to be.

Quirijns’s skill rests in creating a rather sad yet absorbing portrait of a man who appears to be torn between hiding in his own, shy world but being reasonably happy to fulfil the needs of those who want to learn more about him.

The film hints at a fair amount of conflict (not of the aggressive kind) in Corbijn’s world – but also shows perhaps how he manages to escape from it all: his family.

In fact, the segments featuring his sister and mother are calm, sometimes funny and yet still rather melancholic, especially with Marietje (who passed away in 2011 at the age of 86) when they talk about his father (also named Anton).

Quirijns manages to extract plenty from Corbijn’s head, but still leaves it up to the viewer to come to their own conclusions about him and his legacy (so far).

And this, ironically, is also a trademark of Corbijn’s work – don’t seek to explain everything, let the person experiencing that work do the hard work and interpret it themselves.

For most of us who have watched and admired his work for many years, there are three elements which would undoubtedly ring true about Corbijn: depth, darkness and an ability to give an edge to his collaborators.

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Martin Gore is the only member of Depeche Mode to be featured in the film.

He is seen playing pool and joking with Corbijn, before being asked by Quirijns about the band’s close and long-term collaboration with the Dutchman over the years.

“We really struggled early on with an image problem. We were seen really as just a pop band. So we felt Anton has a certain seriousness and a certain gravity to his work that would help us get away from that. It helped us to create a kind of cult status.”

Incidentally, Quirijns was also interviewed about her role in making Inside Out:

Clean – a video that only Depeche Mode could get away with

“So, Mart, what we want you to do is sit in a darkened room, watch a big screen for a bit and then snog a young woman for the rest of the video. OK?”

The video for Depeche Mode track Clean, filmed by Anton Corbijn around the same time as the one for Halo, ended up on the Strange Too collection alongside those accompanying the four singles from Violator.

Infinitely simpler to pull together than Halo, which featured a set, dancers and the entire band, Clean is pretty much as noted above.

After emerging from a pool, a woman joins Martin Gore as he watches footage from some of the World Violation Tour stage projections.

Bored/inspired by those, their attention turns to one another and, well, viewers then get to watch them kissing for a few minutes before they both exit stage right, presumably to continue their close liaison elsewhere.

As someone noted, with tongue firmly planted in their cheek, during one of the interviews for HALO:

“Martin got a decent part in this one! But can you imagine any other band getting away with a video like this?”

That’s a good point.

Corbijn’s gradual overhaul of the Depeche Mode’s visual output to that point meant that, rather than the video appearing rather sleazy or just a bit odd,  a powerful, brooding and sensual song like Clean got an appropriately grainy and, ahem, pretty sexy video to match the intensity of the audio.

It is almost impossible to imagine Depeche Mode being able to produce a similar video just a few years before, under their previous directors.

For a more sedate outing of Clean, check out this wonderful acoustic version.

The famous red rose – growing years before Violator

It is not all about the music – there are plenty of  visuals that characterise the Violator period for Depeche Mode.

Dave Gahan wandering about the Alps, dressed as a king.

All four members of the band, clad in cowboy gear –  ahem, visiting a den of inequity in the wild west.

But perhaps one surpasses them all – the red rose that adorns on the front cover of the album.

Variations of it appeared on the Enjoy The Silence single cover, across the fan merchandise throughout the period, plus in giant form in the middle of the stage curtains used on the World Violation Tour in 1990.

The simple, single red rose, let’s face it, IS Violator.

It was Anton Corbijn’s creation, along with the rest of the design and videos from the singles and album.

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The wonderful Depeche Mode Classic Fans Photos And Videos group on Facebook recently add some new content to its archive from July 1985.

Depeche Mode are not known for being a festival band (yet that Glastonbury rumour won’t go away!), only appearing at a select few over the years.

One particular festival, however, has managed to get on the Depeche gig circuit on a number of occasions.

The Werchter Rock festival in Belgium has featured the band in 1985, 2006, and 2013, with Gahan doing a solo slot there in 2003.

Depeche also appeared at another event in the country, TW Classic, in 2009.

They appear to like their Belgian festivals.

The 1985 gig was at the back end of the Some Great Reward Tour, featuring 12 songs including If You Want, Leave In Silence, Blasphemous Rumours, Photographic, Just Can’t Get Enough.

Interestingly, take a look at this clip of a TV report and interviews with Gahan and Alan Wilder from the festival, in particular a short segment from 1m10s onwards where some fans in the crowd are seen waving red roses in the air.

Was this something particular to Belgian fans? Or perhaps also for those further up the coast in the Netherlands, home to a certain Mr Corbijn?


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Incidentally, Depeche’s appearance at the 2013 event, when they appeared on the same bill as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Blur and Green Day, has since gone down in folklore as the moment when Andy Fletcher stripped off his shirt at the end of the Never Let Me Down, much to the amusement of the rest of the band.

Gahan pic credit via Werchter website.

Click, click, click – Anton Corbijn exhibition at The Hague

Anton Corbijn “visually saved us”, Dave Gahan once said.

Given the video output from Depeche Mode, pre-Question of Time, he’s probably right.

The addition of Corbijn as an integral part of the team during the Violator era was an important move, giving him free reign over not only the videos but also the album artwork and official photography for years to come.

In terms of the photography, Corbijn added depth, a mood and, let’s face it, a type of gravitas or coolness due to the quality of the photography.

Corbijn’s career is now being documented at an exclusive exhibition in The Hague, Netherlands, this year.

The 1-2-3-4 event is being held at the city’s Fotomuseum from March 21 to June 21.

Tickets, info, etc here.

Here’s a trailer to whet your appetite 😉

Halo – try an apathetic motion version

Difficult to improve on a classic, so why bother?

This doesn’t stop others out there trying their hands at remixing Depeche Mode songs, of course.

Halo is no exception, yet perhaps only the Goldfrapp version really challenges the original from the album – so much so that a Dave-led outing was performed during encores on the Delta Machine tour.

Still, here is the Apathy in Motion Remix of Halo.

It’s a simple reworking, mainly on the percussion side of things. Neat and tidy, nothing spectacular.

* Fans of Depeche trivia will note the pic above is from the Halo video made by Anton Corbijn  for the Strange Too compilation, with a cameo appearance from the Dutch lensman.