FILM CLUB : Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads ‘Stop Making Sense’

Usually a genre reserved for more dedicated fans, over the years there have been quite a few essential concert films that even casual listeners may have encountered. Older generations would likely recommend any one of Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Waltz’, Peter Clifton and Joe Massot’s ‘The Song Remains the Same’, or Adrian Maben’s ‘Live at Pompeii’, to name just a few. While those who had their musical education during the early-to-mid 90’s may also stake a claim for the Nirvana and Alice In Chains ‘MTV Unplugged’ to be included in any must-watch list. However, when it comes to selecting the very best the genre has ever produced, many will suggest you should look no further than Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film ‘Stop Making Sense’.

It was Talking Heads vocalist and guitarist David Byrne who first approached Demme with his ideas for a concert film. Byrne was a fan of Demme’s work, particularly the critically acclaimed ‘Melvin and Howard’, and it just so happened that Demme was also a fan of weird and wonderful art pop of Talking Heads. At the time Demme was looking to take a break from Hollywood after his first big movie, the Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell starring ‘Swing Shift’, had been plagued with problems. It was a tough time for Demme. The film was a critical and commercial flop upon release, resulting in the director distancing himself from the finished product. ‘Stop Making Sense’ would present Demme with an opportunity to do something different, while also enabling him to show the world what he was truly capable of. 

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Working with Talking Heads proved to be a collaboration made in heaven. Demme and his crew took what Byrne had envisioned regarding the music, staging and lighting, and added a level of intimacy and humanity that had never been seen before (or matched since) when documenting a live show by focusing in on the personality of each of the performers. Demme would later become notable for his use of dramatic close-ups which placed the viewer in the shoes of his characters, with Anthony Hopkins in the award winning thriller/horror ‘Silence of the Lambs’ being the finest example of this technique in action.

It’s quite rare that you come away from watching a concert film feeling like you’ve got to know the performers but that’s exactly how you feel after viewing ‘Stop Making Sense’. It offers you more than just front row seat, you’re practically invited up on the stage to dance alongside the band. Using six different camera operators, as well as lighting designed by someone with experience in theatre (the aim was to make it look on film like it would to the eye), the idiosyncrasies of each performer are allowed to shine through. While Byrne’s strange charisma and infectious energy undoubtedly make him the star, he far from steals the show with everyone involved playing a key role.

Shot over the course of three nights at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood during December 1983, it documented Talking Heads at their peak as they toured their fifth album ‘Speaking In Tongues’. In order to pay for filming and production costs the band raised the $1 million-plus budget themselves, much of it gained from their music videos being in heavy rotation on MTV. A lot of time and effort went into rehearsals, with key movements choreographed. Yet despite the pre-planning, it all looks and feels 100% natural.

Jonathan Demme Oscar winner (director of Stop Making Sense) died last week at the age of 73

Beginning with Byrne entering an empty stage carrying a portable cassette player and performing a solo acoustic rendition of ‘Psycho Killer’, other band members and their equipment are introduced to the audience gradually as the concert progresses. Initially, it’s bassist Tina Weymouth who joins Byrne for another acoustic rendition, this time of ‘Heaven’. Weymouth’s husband, fellow Tom Tom Club member and drummer Chris Frantz then enters the stage for ‘Thank You For Sending Me an Angel’, before keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison joins for ‘Found a Job’ which features all four core members of the band together for the first time.

Additional support musicians, many of whom with backgrounds in funk, then begin to enter the action. There’s percussionist Steve Scales, backing singers and dancers Lynn Marbry and Ednah Holt, former Funkadelic/Parliament keyboard Bernie Worrell, and ex-The Brothers Johnson guitarist Alex Weir. With all nine musicians on stage for the first time during ‘Burning Down the House’ the party really gets started. From here on out there’s so much going on, so much fun being had that even after repeated viewings you continue to discover new things that you hadn’t seen or heard on previous occasions. 

The performances are so tight and full of energy that it can make the studio versions of songs sound quite flat in comparison, with 1979’s transition album ‘Fear of Music’ suffering the most. There’s the aforementioned acoustic version of ‘Heaven’, as well as the bonus tracks ‘Cities’ and ‘I Zimbra’, with all three given a new lease of life on ‘Stop Making Sense’. However, the album’s lead single ‘Life During Wartime’ is on another level altogether, offering up one of the most iconic moments of the entire performance as it features Byrne’s silly dance moves and him jogging laps around the stage.

While Byrne’s super cool lamp dance at the end of ‘This Must Be The Place’ provides another of the film’s memorable moments, ‘Stop Making Sense’ is most widely remembered for his big suit performance during ‘Girlfriend Is Better’, the lyrics of which provide the title of the concert (“As we get older and stop making sense…“). Aside from the more iconic moments, pretty much every performance is delivered with near perfection. From ‘Making Flippy Floppy’ with the big red screens containing selected words and phrases, to the Tom Tom Club performing ‘Genuis of Love’, to the show closer ‘Cross-eyed and Painless’ which features rare shots of the audience dancing and having fun

What makes ‘Stop Making Sense’ so brilliant is that it’s all done via the music and visuals alone. No narration, no interviews. The chemistry that exists between all nine performers and the production crew is incredible. Everyone came together, united behind a vision, and made it happen. And they had an absolute blast while doing so. It’s what makes ‘Stop Making Sense’ more than just another concert film. It’s pop theatre at its finest and something anyone can enjoy. Even the most miserable bugger you know would be forced to crack a smile while watching it.