The Evolution Will Be Televised

Man becomes a diapered monkey. College art rock becomes an MTV sensation. And Chuck Statler becomes the rock video director who started it all.

Statler was attending his hometown college of Kent State in search of a BFA in film studies. It was in that fine arts department where he forged a friendship with classmates Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, who that year formed "The De-Evolution Band." Abbreviated as "Devo," the project borrowed from the tenets of a book called The Beginning Was the End: Knowledge Can Be Eaten by pseudo-scientist Oscar Kiss Maerth, who posited that the human race evolved from a species of brain-eating apes. Mothersbaugh and Casale were still stirred by the National Guard's murder of four Vietnam War protesters on their college campus two years earlier, so the band developed Maerth's theory into a new-wave manifesto that indicted the human race for devolving into nothing more than quasi-organic cogs in an automated, industrial Earth-machine.

Because they were art-school tech-dorks, Devo had an aesthetic that was largely dependent on visual intrigue, and their early recordings failed to gain any national momentum. By 1976, embittered by years of struggling in rubber tire country and getting nowhere, Devo were ready to call it quits. Casale phoned his old buddy Statler, who had recently dropped out of school and relocated to Minneapolis in search of a film production career. Upon hearing the news, Statler had one request. "Not so fast," he said. "Before you split up, let's do a film."

Statler drove down to Akron and hatched a scheme with Casale and Mothersbaugh to shoot a short film, starring the band, which connected their theme song "Jocko Homo" with a cover of Johnny Rivers's "Secret Agent Man." The vague, Orwellian plotline featured an evil CEO, mad scientists, and a baby-faced man-child, and the result was "The Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-evolution," which was finished in 1977. By the end of that year, Devo had a contract with Warner Bros. (reportedly at the behest of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, who were won over by Statler's film) and were in the studio with Brian Eno working on their eponymous major-label debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

Monkey business: Chuck Statler launched his music video career with odes to primate rock
Sean Smuda
Monkey business: Chuck Statler launched his music video career with odes to primate rock

Meanwhile, Statler returned to Minneapolis, where he'd been working as an ad man, to make more music films. But when he scoured the Twin Cities for a band to work with, he had little luck. "Back then bands were reluctant to take the time to make a video," Statler says. "Today it's as much a part of the schematic as making an album. But back then, if a band had three days off, they didn't want to traipse around and do a video. Films cost money, and bands didn't have any."

Eventually Statler found a group willing to get in front of the camera. The Suicide Commandos, the early-'80s Twin Cities punk band, learned that the building where they practiced was going to be incinerated. As it happened, they had a song called "Burn It Down."

Soon afterward, Statler's phone started ringing.

A chance meeting with Elvis Costello's manager at a Minneapolis bar yielded a series of videos, including "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" Warner Bros. commissioned Statler to direct the video for Devo's cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." For the next six years, Statler toured the globe, making videos for Prince, the Cars, J. Geils, Pere Ubu, Graham Parker, Madness, and many others. In the early 1980s, both Statler and Jonathan Demme--director of The Silence of the Lambs and the Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, among others--separately approached American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar about making a film out of his now-famous underground comic, anticipating last year's theatrical release of Fine Line Pictures' Pekar biopic by more than two decades. (Demme couldn't secure funding; Statler wound up directing a short clip based on one of Pekar's Harry Crumb-illustrated stories, "The Last Supper.")

Statler has shifted his focus away from music videos over the past 20 years, returning occasionally for one-off jobs whenever a band puts in the effort to track him down (his most recent work has been low-budget outings with the Moldy Peaches and Ben Kweller). He lives in Golden Valley with his wife and kids, whom he's been escorting to rock shows at First Avenue since they were preteens. (Statler's son Wes fronts the local up-and-coming nu-new-wavers Melodious Owl). He still pays the bills by doing advertising work, and in his spare time he continues to beat against the mainstream current with his own filmmaking, which today tends toward long-form documentary and television. When I catch up with him at the bagel shop, he has just flown in from New York an hour earlier, having spent the weekend filming interviews (with Moby, among others) for The Music from the Ceiling, a documentary he's making about elevator music.

Upon mentioning that particular project, Statler squints his narrow blues eyes and soaks in the bagel shop's easy-listening instrumentals. "It's like this stuff," he says, referring to the Muzak. "'Elevator music' is such a derogatory, pejorative term at this point in time, but I think it warrants reevaluation. It ain't mainstream, and if it has anything to do with non-mainstream, then I'm into it."

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