A concert documentary for and about the people who worship Depeche Mode and hear something holy in the band’s rapturous synth-pop hymns, Anton Corbijn’s “Spirits in the Forest” is the definition of a “fans only” experience, and yet the fun of this delightful bop of a film — not to mention its basic thesis — is located in the idea that Depeche Mode fans are way more widespread and diverse than you might imagine these days. In fact, you might be one of them, even if you don’t know it yet (or have forgotten it at some point over the years).
Co-directed by Pasqual Gutierrez and John Merizalde, “Spirits in the Forest” centers on two ecstatic arena shows that Depeche Mode performed at Berlin’s Waldbühne in July 2018 at the tail end of their most recent world tour. And while the band’s music is what holds this movie together, Corbijn is more interested in the people who take it with them wherever they go. Anyone expecting a straightforward concert doc will be thrown for a loop right from the start, as the film’s opening moments don’t take us backstage with Dave Gahan and his crew, but rather inside a quiet apartment complex in Mongolia. That’s where 22-year-old Indra Amarjagal lives with her grandmother, leads tourists on tours of Ulan Bator, and blisses out to the divine bass line of “Enjoy the Silence.” Her stepfather used to watch Depeche Mode concerts on his computer when she was growing up, and the music has stuck with her ever since.
We never learn what happened to Indra’s stepfather — running a quick 80 minutes (roughly half of which is devoted to concert footage), “Spirits in the Forest” doesn’t spend a lot of time digging into its individual subjects — but it’s clear that she’s eager for someone with whom she can share her fandom. There’s always the internet, but virtual connection doesn’t go deep enough for Indra to shake the feeling that she’s fluent in a language that no one around her can speak.
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Corbijn, who found the rest of his cast through a fan contest that Depeche Mode hosted on their Facebook page, has located five other people who could understand Indra perfectly. Dicken is a Bogota divorcee who bonded with his children by forming them into an ultra-cute new wave cover band. Now the kids live in Miami with their mom and have aged out of making viral videos with their dad, and Dicken is acutely aware of the Depeche Mode-shaped hole in his life. Christian learned English in order to translate the band’s lyrics for the rest of his friends who were growing up in Ceaușescu-era România.
Carin is a Frenchwoman who suffered amnesia when she was 25, and relied on Depeche Mode’s songs to piece her world back together (or so it’s implied). Liz is a mixed-race black woman in Los Angeles who was always mocked for her disinterest in hip-hop, but found solace from racial tension in the raw sincerity of Dave Gahan’s lyrics. The band helped Daniel through a difficult coming out process.
Each of these stories is fascinating, which makes it all the more frustrating that Corbijn (who’s shot several of the band’s most iconic videos) is content to stay on the surface. Then again, music wouldn’t be necessary if it were easy to articulate its effect. As Jafar Panahi once said: “If we could tell a film, why make a film?” Corbijn cuts to the concerts whenever his interview subjects begin to brush up against the ineffable, and Depeche Mode are more than capable of taking it from there.
It’s been almost 40 years since the Essex band released their first album, and the remaining members have survived an Oscar-winning biopic worth of drugs, drama, and near-death experiences to get to where they are today, but hot damn these guys still sound tight as hell. Gahan’s signature baritone is as deep and beautiful as ever, and the 57-year-old recovering heroin addict commands the stage like new wave never got old.
It takes about two notes of “Personal Jesus” for even the most dismissive of viewers to understand the religious effect Depeche Mode has on its fans. Listening to the band send an aching banger like “Precious” into the rafters is enough to make you wonder how U2 got away with acting like they invented this kind of gig. By the time they bust out “Just Can’t Get Enough” you’ll be itching to dust off your old vinyl of “Speak & Spell,” squeeze into that leather jacket you probably should have donated to Goodwill a long time ago, and reconnect with the person you’ve always been.
“Spirits in the Forest” leaves you wanting more from every aspect of its creation, and that will likely prove more frustrating to die-hard Depeche Mode obsessives than it will for casual fans who’ve semi-forgotten that “People Are People” is basically “We Are the World”’s mysterious older brother. But the real acolytes don’t need to be reminded what their favorite band sounds like in concert so much as they need to recognize themselves and see each other.
Bothersome as it can be that we barely get to know the people in Corbijn’s doc, the experience of watching it dovetails with that of going to a live show and being surrounded by thousands of strangers who share your same love: Everyone is on their own trip, but they’re all traveling together. If only every great band would give their fans a documentary like this.
“Spirits in the Forest” is being screened in theaters worldwide by Trafalgar Releasing for a special one-night engagement on Wednesday, November 21. Click here for more information.