Stop Making Sense

1984, Movie, NR, 88 mins


By common consensus, STOP MAKING SENSE is the best concert film ever made. Director Jonathan Demme worked in close collaboration with the Talking Heads, then at the peak of their popularity and creative powers, in designing a film which gives the viewer insight not merely into a performance (like most such films) but into the nature of performance.

The film was compiled from three concerts given by the band in Hollywood in late 1983. At the time, they were doing their largest and most successful concert tour to date. Since their inception in the late 1970s as part of Manhattan's punk/new wave scene, the Talking Heads had been expanding their musical horizons while refining their lyrical approach. Their most recent albums, which provided the bulk of the material performed on the tour, incorporated a heavy funk influence. To perform this rhythmically complex music live, the core band (David Byrne, guitar, vocals, keyboards; Chris Frantz, percussion, vocals; Tina Weymouth, bass, keyboards, vocals; Jerry Harrison, guitar, keyboards, vocals) was augmented by five other musicians--percussionist Steve Scales, guitarist Alex Weir, singers Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry, and Parliament/Funkadelic veteran Bernie Worrell on keyboards. All of these performers are black, and their integration into the Heads' show, at a time when color lines were a definitional factor in pop music, was significant.

STOP MAKING SENSE is not merely a faithful capturing of a musical performance. As designed by Demme and Byrne, who had storyboarded the live shows in the manner of a film, it was intended to be a musical film. Working with as many as six cameramen, Demme (in whose films music has always been an important element) shows unerring taste in knowing which part of the performance to show at any given time. (The film was accompanied in many theaters by Demme's video for New Order's "The Perfect Kiss," which shares these qualities.)

As part of the strategy of bringing the audience (both at the concert and in the movie theater) into the performance, the band was "assembled" in the opening numbers. The show begins with Byrne, playing an acoustic guitar and accompanied only by a rhythm track on a cassette player, performing "Psycho Killer." Weymouth joins him for the second song, "Heaven." Drummer Frantz enters for "Thank You For Sending Me an Angel," and Harrison joins the band on "Found a Job." This plan also mirrors the band's development, from punk simplicity to more complex music. The other musicians continue to take the stage during "Slippery People" and "Burning Down the House," until the full band is together for "Life During Wartime," the climax of the first part of the show. The band goes on to play "Making Flippy Floppy," "Swamp," "What a Day That Was," "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," "Once in a Lifetime," "Genius of Love," "Girlfriend Is Better," "Take Me to the River," "Crosseyed and Painless." (The version of the film released on videocassette in the US also includes "Cities" and a medley of "Big Business"/"I Zimbra.")

The show provides various elements to "decorate" the performance--slide projections behind the stage, a few props, and Byrne's famous "big suit." The lighting is atypical for a rock show--there are no lasers or flashing colored lights. Designed by a technician with theatrical rather than musical experience, it relies on contrast and shade rather than color or flash to direct the viewer's eye. The band members' movements are also choreographed, in the manner, if not the style, of the black funk and soul bands that have influenced this music. They may not look spontaneous, as for instance when the singers and guitarists jog in place in "Life During Wartime," but they do look natural--and that's rock and roll. You don't have to be a fan of the Talking Heads to enjoy STOP MAKING SENSE, but it's hard to imagine this film not making you a fan, or at least expanding your musical horizons. leave a comment

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