Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Lynn Mabry
I was never a Talking Heads fan. Or, rather, I never gave them much of a chance. I was born in 1983. I grew up in a household that paid little attention to popular culture of any kind. We had few films on video. My parents’ musical adventurousness extended as far as Elton John and The Carpenters. I remember we had three records and two of them were musical soundtracks (War of the Worlds and Chess). You might even credit my subsequent addiction to films and music as a perpetual attempt at catch-up after such a bereft childhood. In short, I came to Stop Making Sense not as a Talking Heads fan, but as a rabid devourer of cinema who’d gotten the distinct impression that this was some kind of milestone. A tick-box watch, even. I sat down with it, ultimately, so I could say I had.
Jonathan Demme I was familiar with already. I saw The Silence of the Lambs at a questionably young age (I was about 10, and it’s violence didn’t phase me in the slightest; it wasn’t until a second watch at around 18 years old that it struck me how inappropriate the film was for a kid so young). I’d seen Philadelphia on television along the way, too. And Something Wild. It was his name and the film’s rep that drew me to it more than the music of Talking Heads, which I knew only vaguely and had categorised in my head as something square and dad-rockish; comparable with so many deeply unfashionable ’80s acts who peddled soft rock guitar solos and painfully overwrought sincerity. Basically, I didn’t know shit.
I think my first watch overwhelmed me. It wasn’t until after that I caught myself tapping along to songs I was half-remembering, rhythms that I couldn’t shake, basslines that moved around like serpents. I watched it again. And again. I’ve been to my share of enchanting gigs where the vibe is something else. They’re rare, but worth seeking. FKA twigs in a church. The Flaming Lips’ Wizard of Oz excesses. MIA. Joanna Newsom. But David Byrne’s energy in Stop Making Sense – and how infectious it was – seemed like truly something uniquely special.
Acknowledging that they were committing performance to film, Byrne and the rest of Talking Heads (Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison) worked with Demme to orchestrate a live show that had something close to a narrative. Thus it begins with Byrne alone with his guitar on the shabby, bereft-looking stage at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, crooning “Psycho Killer” while half-staggering about the open space to a staccato rhythm that is played as if coming from a lowly boombox. The show builds by increments. Tina joins him for a duet of “Heaven” (a deeply affecting cut from Fear of Music). Behind them roadies push out raised platforms. Chris appears and we get a charged run-through of “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel”. The core of the band is completed when Jerry unifies them for “Found a Job”. But the progressions aren’t done.
Setting them apart – and even ostracising them from some of their New York peers in the post-punk scene – Talking Heads embraced influences that crossed racial lines. Reggae and African music crept into the very fabric of their songs, their structure. In keeping, the band on stage only grows with the inclusion of all-Black session players and back-up singers. Bernie Worrell on keys. Alex Weir’s electric guitar. An array of percussion tended to by Steven Scales. And animated, fore-fronted backing singers Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry (garbed in outfits they detested, not that you could tell from their joyous energy).
This larger band assembled, Stop Making Sense continues to mutate itself. Lighting alternates. Choreography is employed (career highlight “Life During Wartime” makes a giddy mockery of the ’80s obsession with aerobics work-outs until Byrne is doing laps of the stage). In the second half, screens project words, images or swathes of colour (the ominous red that imprints “Swamp” like a warning of encroaching fascism). There are props (the lamp Byrne dances with through the outro of “Naive Song”) and, of course, costumes.
Byrne dons glasses and musses his hair for a breathless rendition of the band’s hit “Once in a Lifetime” (and here Demme makes his own framing choice, isolating the band’s singer for the entirety of the song, flexing the visual language of the film), but this turns out to be only a prelude to something far more iconic. Byrne departs and Tina holds court with a lively excursion to her sometime-side project Tom Tom Club, affording their erstwhile lead the opportunity to don “the big suit” – the famed oversized business suit intended to make a mockery of self-important Wall Street types and the decade’s testosterone-pumped frenzy for capital and consumption. Byrne’s lithe figure enhances the strangeness. As they perform “Girlfriend is Better” he at first appears lost in the suit, uptight. But this too turns out to be an unfolding story. In the song’s latter section he starts to move and shimmy, sending ripples through the thing (the end credits advise of the suit having been “built” as opposed to “sewn” or “tailored”), contorting and busting our connections to the garment. Freeing it.
Along the way the set has maintained its own trajectory. While “Swamp” marks a relative undulation, it steadily feels as though the energy is incrementally intensifying. Demme’s roaming camera crew catches sweat flicking from foreheads. Byrne’s clothes grow see-through – twice – from his various antics and the heat of the lights and the buzz in the room. The crowd isn’t given too much consideration, but the eager viewer can monitor their responses. Sitting quietly at the show’s beginning, up and dancing excitedly by its end. Thus there is a sense of accumulation and crescendo in the final two songs; extended, jam-like takes on their hit cover of “Take Me to the River” and Remain in Light deep cut “Crosseyed and Painless”; the latter chosen for its dizzying, upbeat energy to round-out the show at a fever pitch. After the hilarity of the “big suit” – an unabashed bit of theatre – the last song in particular feels like an exorcism, each band member pouring their insides into the song. Down front, Holt and Mabry flail their hair wildly between breathless chants of “I’m still waiting”.
Describing all this I hope to convey how Stop Making Sense sweeps the viewer up in it’s evolutions. Each time I go back it manages to surprise me. How involved I get. Even sat passively in a living room with the movie, I’m moving. Twitching. Tapping. Dancing in place by the end. Talking Heads’ way with rhythm is part of why they remain one of the great bands. They’re infectious. They worm into you. Lisa Day’s editing captures that. Transmits it. Stop Making Sense is rightly considered one of the best concert films because it makes you feel like you were there, while the sense of community on the stage offers nothing but joy.
Just this week A24 put out a teaser trailer for the forthcoming remaster of the film. In it, Byrne – known for bicycling around New York to this day (as captured at the end of Spike Lee’s semi-sequel film American Utopia) – visits a dry cleaners to pick up an item that’s been there for some time. Later, in front of a mirror, he dons the “big suit” once more and a match-cut takes us back to him bending and shimmying in December 1983. It’s an evocative tease for the film’s return to our screens. A prompt to revisit. Cinema allows us to not just remember, but to re-experience. It can document and it can transport us back to a moment. Stop Making Sense is time travel, in a sense. It is magic. I wasn’t yet a one year old when Byrne and the crew were on stage performing these shows but, as an adult, through this film, I was there.
Does that make sense?