Nearly four decades ago, some friends and I went to see the universally praised Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense. Barely twenty minutes into its eighty-eight minute runtime, large swaths of the audience were dancing ecstatically in the aisles. It was one of the most memorable movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. For the 40th anniversary of the December 1983 concert, Stop Making Sense is back in theaters, daring us once again to remain seated with completely remastered sound.
Stop Making Sense captures The Talking Heads at the pinnacle of their musicianship and stagecraft. The structure of the show, which was the brainchild of lead singer and songwriter David Byrne, features an opening playlist designed to introduce the founding members of the band one song at a time. David Byrne takes the lead, walking onstage carrying an acoustic guitar and a boom box. With a push of a button, the cassette player provides percussion accompaniment as Byrne launches into Psycho Killer. Next up is bassist Tina Weymouth, who joins Byrne for Heaven, one of the band’s more melodic and haunting numbers, followed by Chris Frantz attacking his drum set on the energetic Thank You for Sending Me an Angel. Guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison completes the lineup of the original band when he joins in for Found a Job. Over the next two songs, backup singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt, percussionist Steve Scales, guitarist Alex Weir and keyboardist Bernie Worrell join the revelry, adding energy and musical complexity. As the music builds up, so does the stage; during the first six songs, roadies dressed in black discreetly wheel out risers and set up additional instruments, gradually transforming a flat uncluttered space into a two-level performance platform topped with multiple keyboards and drums.
Among film critics, Stop Making Sense is widely regarded as one of the greatest rock movies ever made, if not the greatest. What makes it so special? Pauline Kael said it best: “heightened simplicity.” Gone are the cliché trappings of typical concert films. There are no fog machines, laser lights, or distracting cutaways to audience reactions. Occasionally, slide projectors provide simple background images of rows of books or random strings of words, such as “Digital Babies Dustballs,” fulfilling the imperative of the movie’s title. Mostly, though, the background is unadulterated blackness. The resulting visual austerity creates a sense of intimacy that enhances our connection with the performers.
In hindsight, it’s interesting to note who The Talking Heads chose to direct their movie – a rising talent by the name of Jonathan Demme, who later went on to win an Oscar for his landmark thriller, The Silence of the Lambs. Along with his cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and editor Lisa Day, Demme was smart enough to recognize that the band’s infectious exuberance didn’t need any pumping up with flashy editing or camerawork. With the strangely charismatic David Byrne in the spotlight, who’s equal parts singer and performance artist, there’s always something uniquely entertaining to train his camera on, whether it’s the way he undulates his body inside an oversized business suit, dances with a floor lamp, or collapses his ribcage and jerks his body around like a scarecrow suffering from seizures.
The closing songs don’t quite reach the rapturous highs that Burning Down the House and Life During Wartime achieved at the end of the first half hour, but that’s a minor complaint. Stop Making Sense remains one of the most supremely satisfying concert movies ever made.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski
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