Stop Making Sense (1984)
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The movie stands up by any measure of cinematic quality - the direction, the photography, the lighting, the set design, the editing, the performances of the 'actors'. Everything is unquestionably good. A couple of illustrations -
During 'Once in a Lifetime', the camera holds on David Byrne, framing him from the waist up, and doesn't leave him until the very last moments of the song. His performance is absolutely enthralling. I've been trying to think of a movie where an actor holds one shot for so long, and I can't.
The photography and lighting during 'What a Day That Was' are beautiful. The stark white up-lighting reduces a large auditorium and stage to a claustrophobic collage of shadows. The effect is not unlike some scenes in Charles Laughton's 'Night of the Hunter'.
In contrast to some other views posted here, I think the Tom Tom Club's appearance adds a colourful punctuation to the flow of the movie.
The DVD is one of the very few I've come across where the commentary is worth listening to. It switches between all four band members plus Jonathan Demme, and the anecdotes are constantly interesting and often very funny. As a package, this is one of the most satisfying DVD's I own. All the extras are worthwhile and well presented, unlike most 'Special Editions' which are crammed full of junk you wouldn't normally give a second look.
It's a pity that, by its nature, Stop Making Sense will only ever appeal to a small audience, because it deserves to be revered by fans of cinema as well as music. The rock movie genre has only a handful of classics to its name, but Stop Making Sense is its Citizen Kane, its Exorcist, its Godfather, its Star Wars. It really is that good.
Twenty years later, the sound and image of Talking Heads still feels new, maybe even post-new. It's frightening to look at this film and then consider that all of the Talking Heads are now in their fifties, and David Byrne's hair is as white as Steve Martin's. Byrne's music has mellowed just as people mellow with age, and his fascinating career along with the direction it's taken is emblematic of the excitement that youth brings to an artist's work. To watch 'Stop Making Sense' is to be alive, and for someone who never had and probably never will have the opportunity to see Talking Heads live, and even for those who have, it is a blessing to have a film such as this to preserve the unmatched innovation and energy of this band. Watching David Byrne perform in this film is an awesome sight. Schwarzenegger and Stallone were never this thrilling.
But, watch Tina Weymouth...
Tina is a very visual performer too. She says almost nothing, letting her bass guitar speak for her. And while David goes over the top often, Tina is subtle and sublime. With her body moves as she dances in place. With her facial expressions, her smiles, occasional raised eyebrows, and glances. Then when the action shifts to the Tom Tom Club (in order to give David a break and allow him to change into his big suit), her big moment is for one song only--"Genius of Love" but man does she seize the moment and make it all her own! Rounding out the Talking Heads of course are drummer Chris Frantz (Tina Weymouth's husband for over 30 years now) and guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison. When Chris takes the stage, he bounds up onto the riser, bows, and with a big smile, gets drumming. He is clearly enjoying himself during this and at the end of the show, he jubilantly throws his sticks into the audience. Jerry is a little harder to get a bead on. At times he's clearly enjoying himself, particularly on BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE. Other times he seems a little detached.
Rounding out the touring band are Alex Weir on lead guitar, Bernie Worrel on keyboards, Edna Holt and Lynn Marbry on back-up vocals, and Steve Scales on percussion. None are treated as sidemen, rather as an integral part of the show.
It has been commented that some "sweetening" of the sound was done. But I believe that it was to achieve sound consistency. I have heard several concert films with terrible audio (RUST NEVER SLEEPS comes to mind). Seeing this movie is what made me a Talking Heads fan back in 1985. Finding a copy at the used book store in 2006 is what helped me re-discover them.
It would be easy to dismiss the Talking Heads as all visual as all David Byrne. Such is not the case. The songwriting and musicianship was solid throughout the band's career. The band remained together for several more years, scoring several additional hits including AND SHE WAS, LADY DON'T MIND, & WILD WILD LIFE. They called it quits as a band in 1991, although all four members have remained active in music.
Take this not as music that became a concert that became a film. Take it instead as what it is, a film.
As a film, it is completely without narrative, except by schematic reference to the viewers' real world. It has no trick narrative stance: the viewers are in the audience. It has no flashy angles or editing. This is both minimalist filmmaking and minimalist rock all based on the notion of urban ecstasy.
As with all great films, this one comes as a strange, focused vision from a single imagination. In this case, Byrnes had been studying religious ecstasy for a decade, and developed a geek shamanism of angst. Cast as Sufic poetry. (See how dead everything gets when the Tom Tom Club does its single number?) Its not the music, but the performance. Its not the performance but that shrill locus of spasm in your spine, its not your spine, oh -- I'll tell you later.
As a film, just a film, I think this rates as one of the most successful experimental films ever.
Essentially, Stop Making Sense is a showcase of the band's collected works. Throughout the 90-minute running-time the concert simultaneously covers the back-catalogue of The Talking Heads, through fluid, non-stop vibrancy. From "Found a Job" and "Take Me to the River" the work is merely a sample of the group's ability to provide some of the most engaging live shows ever recorded. To say that the film is "original" would be an understatement, given that the title still rings true today. Stop Making Sense defines the band's abilities, attitudes, styles and motifs. The New Wave approach the film takes is stylistically engaging to such an extent that it is virtually impossible to draw your eyes away from the screen. Minimalist set-pieces move along with the mood of the music at such a rate that much of the picture feels like a kaleidoscope of blistering sound and trancelike imagery.
David Byrne is the key constituent; bestowing his stage presence, creativity and musical proficiency. His stage dynamics are let loose during Stop Making Sense. The infamously over-sized business suit donned by David Byrne is otherworldly, just like the viewing experience, which transports you into a deep-seated, vivacious trance. Yet it is the suit which distinguishes the work completely. The fact that a regular item of clothing can have the ability to make the wearer seem out-of-proportion and disfigured is both mystifying and captivating. Even more bizarre is that the suit seems to grow relatively larger as the concert progresses. Personal interpretation could be that the suit is an implicative metaphor for the irony of the business world or conformity; on the other hand it could just be about not making sense.
Academy award winning director Jonathan Demme does not just "get the gist of The Talking Heads". Instead he is able to comprehend the themes of the band's work from an unmistakably refined tone that he captures through his direction. The irregularity of the group may be hard for some viewers to swallow, but that can be expected from a group which make music of an acquired taste. As for the choreography, it seems there is none, since the musicians all behave in a volatile and limitless manner. The progressively shifted set-pieces convey the altered reality that you have become apart of, and are an extraordinary example of unbound craftsmanship. Stop Making Sense ultimately displays the band's antics from their perspective; this is due to the extended takes of the performers and the lack of audience shots (the fans can only be seen during wide shots or when the camera moves behind the performers). There are even moments where the viewer effectively becomes apart of the band. A prime example of this manoeuvre is when the camera swings behind drummer Chris Frantz and faces the audience during the rendition of "Thank You for Sending me an Angel."
Characteristically speaking it is hopeless trying to describe the feeling you receive while viewing Stop Making Sense. This is because when seen and heard the mind becomes so fixated with the audacious madness of the piece that every viewer will react differently. Personally, this is the concert which I would irrefutably name as the finest ever recorded, maybe you will too.
From David Byrne's surreal, quirky, fun antics on stage to Tina Weymouth dancing as she played guitar and the camera shots of the Jonathan Demme film, the band and film crew get everything right to provide us with a perfect concert film that is not to be missed. See it on the biggest screen you can with surround sound if possible. I have long thought the soundtrack CD was one of the best ever produced, the concert film holds up just as well. "O-o-oh what a day that was!"
Talking Heads were unquestionably a seminal band in the New York punk/new wave scene. Yet before seeing this film I had little idea of who they were, and even after seeing it I would not necessarily put them on a top ten list. Nonetheless, through a combination of front man David Byrne's charisma and stagecraft, Jonathan Demme's taut, precise filmmaking, and the infectious heat of the music, Stop Making Sense remains the most enthralling and sheerly entertaining rockshow ever. The keening melancholy of "Heaven", the stripped-down mystery of "Once in a Lifetime", the dark funk of "Girlfriend is Better" -- there's simply no duds here. And Byrne works his butt off. He seems to have energy to spare; during one number he simply jogs circles around the stage, as though he needs further exercise. His teammates Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and (eventually) a host of backup singers and musicians click into that energy without a stumble.
This isn't raw work-- clearly this is a conceived film, with defined emotional beats and even a sort of intuitive narrative. And like any band, Talking Heads have a specific sound and style that (I suppose) won't appeal to everyone. But who? I've shown this film to at least three people who never heard of the band before (except through dim memory of early MTV), and even claimed to hate concert movies-- and then they went and bought the soundtrack.
What can I further say? This is a record of performance that cannot be matched. If you like music, at all, clear a little time and watch this movie. I can't promise you won't be disappointed, but I cannot easily imagine how.
Directed by Jonathan Demme, Stop Making Sense was shot over three nights in December 1983, as the group was touring to promote their new album Speaking In Tongues. The movie is notable for being the first made entirely utilizing digital audio techniques. The band raised the budget of $1.2 million themselves. The title comes from a repeated phrase in the song Girlfriend Is Better. At the beginning of the film David Byrne, the lead singer of the Talking Heads, walks on to the stage with a boom box and an acoustic guitar and then performs Psycho Killer. He's just one man, but watching him is interesting, and the song is great too. With each successive song, Byrne is cumulatively joined onstage by each core member of the band: first by Tina Weymouth for Heaven, second by Chris Frantz for Thank You For Sending Me An Angel, and third by Jerry Harrison for Found A Job. The Talking Heads also continue to be augmented by several additional musicians, most of whom had extensive experience in funk.
David Byrne is a very energetic performer. Even the way he moved his body was fun to watch. He even put on that now famous big suit towards the end of the film. In addition, I really liked Tina Weymouth in this film. She's just the cutest bass player ever. I have to stress that Stop Making Sense isn't just a bunch of playing and singing. The band manages to make each song stand out. The faster songs are performed with plenty of energy and enthusiasm, while the slower songs sound beautiful and make you wonder. The film contains no audience shots until the very end to enable the viewer to form their own opinion about the performance. Byrne wanted no colored lights to illuminate the performers. This led to some unusual lighting methods being used for each song. Unlike many concert films/videos which use "MTV-style" quick-cut editing techniques, much of Stop Making Sense uses lengthy camera shots to allow the viewer to examine the performances and onstage interaction. In conclusion, Stop Making Sense is the definitive concert film. You don't even have to be a fan of the band or their music to like it. It's so good that you'll probably want to see it many times. Director Jonathan Demme managed to capture one the greatest bands of their era on film, and did it very well.
Set Lists: 1. Psycho Killer 2. Heaven 3. Thank You For Sending Me An Angel 4. Found A Job 5. Slippery People 6. Burning Down The House 7. Life During Wartime 8. Making Flippy Floppy 9. Swamp 10. What A Day That Was 11. This Must Be The Place 12. Once In A Lifetime 13. Genius Of Love 14. Girlfriend Is Better 15. Take Me To The River 16. Crosseyed And Painless
He jogs around the stage. He bends his body in weird contortions. He puts on a really big suit. From the beginning to end, he has his shirt collar buttoned to the top like a Catholic schoolboy, and I'm not sure how or why.
"How" and "why" are words that pop up a lot while watching this. Talking Heads were weird even for the punk/new wave crowd; they wore their hair like accountants, mined everything from disco to doo-wop to African exotica for their sound, and pulled off the trick of being both mocking and reverential. So whether it's Byrne dancing with a living-room lamp or words like "facelift" and "sandwich" appearing on screen, the viewer is well advised to follow the advice of the title and just let the goofy, heady mess roll over you. You'll probably find yourself having a bit of fun.
It helps if you like their music. You don't hear much of it these days it seems. People know "Life During Wartime" and "Once In A Lifetime," while "Take Me To The River" and "Burning Down The House" were Top 40 hits in the U.S. But the most familiar tune here is probably the one non-Talking Heads song, "Genius Of Love," which is performed by the band's Byrne-less incarnation, the Tom Tom Club. That's because Mariah Carey sampled it (read "sang over it") for one of her big hits, "Fantasy."
Frankly, the band as individuals aren't all that interesting. They don't play off each other or the audience in any way, leaving it to Byrne to sell each song. Jerry Harrison, one of the four Heads, seems AWOL even on the middle of the stage. Bringing up a few session players like Bernie Worrell, the P-Funk keyboardist, helps the film avoid this "boring white guys playing their music" trap at least somewhat, though if the mission of this film is to introduce us to the Talking Heads, it's certainly no "Hard Day's Night" or "Last Waltz."
But the songs are good, and Byrne works through his bemused detachment to become quite passionate on some selected numbers. His "Once In A Lifetime" is one of the great screen performances of 1984. Goofy lighting sets up "Swamp" and "What A Day That Was" and there's oddball tricks aplenty throughout. I like the lower-key "Heaven," a wistful number about "a place where nothing ever happens" which Byrne delivers with the right amount of grace while bassist Tina Weymouth delivers some solid accompaniment.
I see a lot of times where the notes being played or hit don't correspond with what's on screen. The film was shot over a period of days, and then edited together, but judging from the perfect quality of the performed pieces, I sense some post-game "sweetening" went on. But it's a nice piece to watch, very sublime, and the new DVD treatment is a decided gem worth having. You'll wish you were back in the 1980s when the Heads were the newest thing, though they never really got old. At least they will always be fresh and alive and together on "Stop Making Sense."
Maybe one or two songs might not totally click or may sound a little, well, dated (it was the 80s after all, no longer the folks from CBGB's), but there's constantly memorable moments, including the opening take on Psycho Killer, the building-block form from song to song as band members join one by one until it's a good dozen players and singers all in the mix, and with the imagery that Demme and DP Jordan Crenowith create. For the most part it's (perfectly) straightforward film-making... but here and there we see real artistry break through, shadows cascading the figures playing, the juxtaposition of Byrne in that suit flopping around, moving around seamlessly between musicians. It's the kind of craftsmanship that looks like it should be easy enough with a good few cameras, yet probably took as much prep work as Scorsese had on the Last Waltz.
So, take in all of the 80's New-Wave mood (and, make no mistake, it's VERY 80's New Wave, but probably in the best and most experimental sense imaginable), take in pretty much all of the classic Talking Heads numbers (there's one I forget the name of that's especially chilling with the chorus a series of 'ya-hay-hay-hay-hay-hay's' from Byrne in marching formation). It's probably one of the best modern concert films.
The thing about SMS is that it's just pure music, and pure joy. No filler: interviews with the band members backstage, crowd shots, spliced segments of music videos, blah blah blah. If you love a band's music, why bother with the other crap? It's just drama (which there was plenty of on this tour, apparently, if you read the interviews).
David Byrne is such a freak, and his unadulterated joy at being able to BE a freak on stage and get paid for it is infectious. This is a show for every self-conscious teen who felt like shrinking into his chair during class, but who busts out dancing in the privacy of his bedroom.
A Talking Heads concert from 1984, recorded at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. We have the band - David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison and Chris Frantz - plus several very talented backing singers and musicians. The Talking Heads offshoot, the Tom Tom Club (Weymouth and Franz, plus backing musicians), also performs a few songs.
This is Talking Heads at their peak, creativity-wise and popularity- wise. Incredible concert - the band seemed to be having a whole lot of fun and the music is fantastic. There is also the stage theatrics, largely by frontman David Byrne, and these amount to performance art.
The only concert films that surpass this, I think, are The Band's The Last Waltz and the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration.
Director Jonathan Demme knows what he's doing here. Instead of gratuitous audience shots, he focuses on the band. Not only is the music wonderful and breathtaking, the background slides, lighting and costumes make the whole show very entertaining without distracting you from the music. The band is incredibly energetic throughout the entire performance -- they seem genuinely thrilled to be on stage. There isn't a single moment where the performance falters -- not even during the silly Tom Tom Club number, which has its charm. Lead singer/songwriter David Byrne is undoubtedly the focus of the show, and his funky geek persona comes through loud and clear. It's truly a marvelous concert film. Words don't do it justice. Rent it today!
There is so much abstract joy in this piece that it makes one think, "We're they on coke?" I'm thinking since it WAS the 80's...definitely. It was hard NOT to do coke in the 80's.
The only thing missing is that nobody speaks to the audience at all. There's no familiarity between artist and patron. The music does stand on it's own, though.
It was shot right here in Hollywood at the Pantages, which is nice to know. And there's a song in it by the Talking Head's band (- Byrne) the Tom Tom Club, which Mr. Byrne is rumored to have hated. They band split up after this tour which is sad. Mr. Byrne left to have a solo career that never matched the popularity he had with the Talking Heads...and in my opinion never produced anything that equaled it's brilliance.
Sadly, when I saw this at the Varsity in Austin, they were sorta discouraging dancing in the aisles... :(
Sadly, the Sire soundtrack only contains about half the songs from the film, and some of those are edited. In the age of the re-release, perhaps we will soon have the full version in our CD carousels. That would certainly make sense.