Stop Making Sense

February 11, 2011

“I’m an ordinary guy,” sings David Byrne in the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.” Audiences being exposed to Byrne’s vulture-eyed, bone-rattling, and utterly mesmerizing presence may be forgiven for questioning the truth of his lyric; he’s truly one of the most bizarre and dynamic rock figures ever captured on film. He’s the lead singer, songwriter, and guiding force of the Talking Heads, and he also directed their 1983 stage shows, of which Stop Making Sense is the cinematic record. The film has another director, Jonathan Demme (of Melvin and Howard), whose cinematic conception of this concert—and it’s all music, no interviews or backstage hijinks—harmonizes exactly with Byrne’s vision.

I can’t tell you how good it is to see a concert done justice by film; as a rule, this is the deadliest of film genres. It’s been widely noted that Demme has gone in for lengthier camera takes, rather than the usual cut-cut-cut of most concert movies. True enough, but how does this make Stop Making Sense a superior concert film? For one thing, it lays the burden of interest squarely on the performers; they have to sink or swim without fancy editorial tricks to distract the viewers. The band must build its performance from within; there’s a strong sense of the music growing internally (rather than being a series of songs laid end to end). That’s especially important here, because the music is designed in complicated, circular rhythms that irresistibly draw you in. (This style also fits the shape of the concert: Byrne starts out alone onstage with a guitar and a ghetto-blaster, and is gradually joined by other band members as the group grows into a nine-person band—even mutating into the Tom Tom Club for a delightful “Genius of Love”—and the music gets increasingly hotter.)

Demme’s camera seems to work its way into the flow of the concert; it’s as though we understand it from inside. During the song “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” Demme’s camera watches drummer Chris Frantz, who has just come onstage, and Byrne, playing guitar in front of him. Demme lets the shot run for a while as the two pound through the song. Then the camera drifts straight back, just a bit, and we see the other person on stage: bassist Tina Weymouth, happily frugging away to Byrne’s left. You know she’s been there the whole time, and somehow the camera’s adjustment to include her is gratifying—it’s an acknowledgment that the concert has a life of its own, outside of the film frame.

Demme’s objective is not to adapt the concert into a film, but to integrate film into the concert. I’m not sure that’s been done successfully before. The ecstatic high point of this fusion between the movement of the concert and the style of the film comes during “Girlfriend is Better,” as the band shouts the words “Stop Making Sense.” Byrne waves the microphone at the light man who has come onstage, and the man leans in for a chorus. On the next beat, Byrne pivots and finds…us. He’s looking into the camera, and—what the hey—he waves the mike our way for a moment. Movie and concert really have become one. I don’t see a lot of concert films, because they’re usually a sorry bunch. So, although I can’t claim to be an expert on the disreputable subject, Stop Making Sense is certainly the best concert movie I’ve ever seen.

First published in The Informer, November 1984

A very good moment in music-movie history. The movie played a nice long run at the Market Theatre in Seattle, and its arrival seemed to suggest an interesting life slithering into existence in the same world inhabited by Stranger Than Paradise and Repo Man and other such titles. I’m not sure anything ever quite developed from that (maybe it came to fruition in the 1990s), but it was nice while it lasted.