When this classic concert movie was re-released in theaters recently, digitally enhanced, it was an opportunity for the members of Talking Heads to reunite publicly for the first time since they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame more than twenty years ago. There had been bad blood between them, especially between David Byrne and the other three. I took the chance to go see the movie in a theater and was struck by how hard it is to see that this lovable group of people could ever break up. As they met the press four decades later, it looked as if time had begun to heal the rift.
Watching the film together with an admittedly older audience of fans became a night to remember. This was one occasion where it seemed fitting to applaud the band and take pictures of them, even though we were only watching a screen.
Staggering around the stage
It begins on an empty stage with David Byrne, a guitar and a cassette tape player. He begins to sing ”Psycho Killer”, the hit from 1977. Byrne is a kooky character and his performance eventually has him staggering around the scene, a sort of dance that’s meant to look like Jean-Paul Belmondo near the end of Breathless (1960); the beat on the cassette tape player is in fact coming from a much stronger drum machine. The opening shows that a lot of thought, artistry, originality and technical know-how will go into this concert. As the next song begins, Byrne is joined by Tina Weymouth, and so it continues: with each new number more band members join them, along with new instruments and a couple of back-up singers. In the end, it’s quite a crowded scene, exuding energy that will leave you breathless.
Shot over four evenings
Near the end of my review of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978), I wrote that it’s hard to envision a better cinematic treatment of a concert. I wasn’t wrong; it’s rare to see concert movies of that quality. But six years later, Jonathan Demme delivered, the same year as he also directed Swing Shift, a Goldie Hawn vehicle that suffered from a troubled production and a collaboration with Hawn that didn’t end well. It was meant to be a prestigious Hollywood project for Demme, but acclaim came instead for his Talking Heads film, shot over four nights and live performances at a theater in Los Angeles that had served as the home for the Academy Awards in the 1950s.
The strict focus on the band and their show is really where we want to be.
The evenings served different purposes from a filmmaking perspective, resulting in a visual experience that feels meticulously planned and very well directed, with effective lighting and camera shots from cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth. The four evenings blend seamlessly. There are few shots of the audiences, a choice that came out of poor lighting options… but the strict focus on the band and their show is really where we want to be.
Seems like you had to be in great shape if you wanted to be part of Talking Heads. Apart from all the running, there’s a whole range of well-rehearsed dance movements, especially from Byrne. His most memorable outfit comes in the film’s second half where he dons an enormously outsized white suit, a moment that has become a cultural touchstone. An idea Byrne borrowed from Japanese Noh theater, the suit was meant to emphasize body over mind. It sure is a grandiose sight, larger-than-life like so much else in the film. As for the songs, there’s one banger after the other, with ”Burning Down the House” and ”Once in a Lifetime” obvious, crowd-pleasing highlights.
If you’re an artist and you have the slightest interest in elevating your upcoming concert movie into something more than simple PR, then Stop Making Sense is the one to study.
Stop Making Sense 1984-U.S. 88 min. Color. Produced by Gary Goetzman. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth.
Last word: “The use of extended shots instead of quick cuts is a result of my belief that there is great power available by holding on any extended terrific moment and letting the viewer become more deeply involved in the performance at hand, instead of constantly interrupting the flow with un-needed cuts. Too much cutting usually speaks to a lack of editorial confidence in the players and the music.” (Demme, TIME Magazine)