Jonathan Demme is an unusual director about whom I know little. Rising to prominence in the 1980s primarily as a director of comedies like Something Wild and Married to the Mob, Demme eventually found international acclaim with his 1991 horror-thriller The Silence of the Lambs. He followed this up with another commercial success, AIDS drama Philadelphia. These latter two titles are the only two of Demme’s narrative films I have seen and while many consider them to be the high points of his catalogue I was not overly impressed by either of them. For my money, the eclectic Demme has already made his real masterpiece (perhaps one of many, for all I know) in the unlikely shape of a 1984 concert film.
Talking Heads are a band who I discovered comparatively late in my musical adolescence. Having been muddily aware of their top ten hit ‘Road to Nowhere’, I foolishly judged them on this mildly enjoyable song alone and failed to explore their catalogue further for many years. When I eventually decided to investigate and downloaded (illegally. Oh those heady years of youthful transgression!) their 1977 single ‘Psycho Killer’ it was a revelation which sent me on an album buying frenzy that saw me hoovering up their small but indispensable discography in a matter of months. Frontman David Byrne was an astonishing figure to an identity-seeking young boy who had already embraced his inner-square more through necessity than choice. Here was a lead singer who was genuinely strange rather than endearingly quirky. Nothing about his outsiderness seemed like an affectation. With Byrne you just got Byrne, which meant songs about paper, buildings and amateur film-making that sounded as right and natural as standards even as they asserted themselves by way of their deadpan differences. With the weighty musical talents of Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison weaving aural magic, Talking Heads quickly and immovably became one of my favourite bands of all time.
Stop Making Sense, Demme’s record of three Talking Heads live shows at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, was the moment my love affair with the band exploded into passion the like of which can only be expressed through the medium of dance! Unlike more dull examples of the concert film sub-genre, Stop Making Sense is more than just a filmed gig. Based around ideas by Byrne himself, Stop Making Sense progresses and builds in such a way that it almost creates the illusion of narrative. Crowd reactions, a staple of most concert footage, is deliberately avoided until the closing song (a tight, brilliant rendition of ‘Cross Eyed and Painless’) in order to allow the viewer to have their own reactions uninfluenced by the coercive partying of screen-sanctified spectators. It’s a wise choice given the amount of hypnotic activity occurring on the stage. To tear the camera’s eye from this would only frustrate.
Stop Making Sense opens with the strongly cinematic image of a long shadow preceding a lone man’s appearance on a stage. Silent throughout these opening moments, the film will never again let the volume drop. The stage looks stripped down and unimpressive, as if the stage-dressers were caught in traffic somewhere. Byrne informs the crowd that he has a tape he’d like to play and for a moment it seems that maybe the rest of the band may be in that same traffic jam. Wielding his acoustic guitar and accompanied by the tape’s dusty percussion, Byrne launches straight into ‘Psycho Killer’. While it may seem odd to start the set with one of the band’s most famous songs, it quickly becomes clear that this more minimal composition would not logically fit anywhere else in the set. Soon the stage will be teeming with people, flailing, dancing and strangling every last drop of sound out of a range of instruments, vocal chords included. But for now, it’s just us, Byrne and one of the defining songs of the 70s.
One by one the rest of the band enter, the sound filling out more and more as they each bring their own personal talent to the table. As they do, scene-shifters begin to bring on more instruments, a curtain drops to hide the shabby backstage walls and the tempo picks up. These early moments are dominated by songs from the band’s trio of 70s albums but with the arrival of extra backing vocalists, percussionists and guitarists, Talking Heads launch into the material from their then-current record Speaking in Tongues, an upbeat party album which suffered from tinny production in its studio incarnation but which comes to life in extraordinary fashion on stage to the extent that the live performances immediately replaced their studio counterparts as the definitive versions. Tracks like ‘Slippery People’ and ‘Making Flippy Floppy’ would never sound better, while a cracking version of ‘Burning Down the House’ mercifully erases the memory of when it was shouted and sweated into pop mediocrity by Tom Jones and the Cardigans. This section of Stop Making Sense is perhaps the best, building up an infectious head of steam which peaks with ‘Life During Wartime’, an early track which has its potential unlocked to a degree that it never did on the Fear of Music album.
A few more unusual songs follow this mid-set party. The baritone march of ‘Swamp’; a version of the Byrne solo track ‘What a Day That Was’ and ‘This Must Be the Place’, a terrific song in any incarnation, which is here crooned to a lamp which doubles up as a lighting source and an object of affection. Providing necessary respite while never losing momentum, this collection of songs reaches its logical conclusion with ‘Once in a Lifetime’, one of the greatest alternative pop songs to ever elbow its way into the top twenty. There’s a lot riding on this performance, given that remains the band’s most popular song to this day. Donning authoritarian glasses to portray the preacher character who bellows the song’s verses, Byrne remains in complete control of this potentially most elusive of radio hits. Close enough to the original to delight its fans, different enough to make it mandatory listening for more than just the completists, this intense, powerful and thrilling performance is one of the film’s highlights, although it is testament to the brilliance of Stop Making Sense that in retrospect it’s easy to forget they even performed it. Somehow this famous track is swallowed up by the collective party atmosphere, another great scene in the narrative rather than the moment everyone has been waiting for.
Another reason that it is possible to forget ‘Once in a Lifetime’ was even in the setlist is the moment that follows it. While most concert films have a standout track, Stop Making Sense instead has one of the defining moment of cult 80s cinema, an indelibly strange and funny image that has gone down in both cinematic and musical history. At the end of ‘Once in a Lifetime’, Byrne leaves the stage and Tina Weymouth takes to the mic as side-project Tom Tom Club perform their great single ‘Genius of Love’. Fitting neatly into the setlist (although conspicuously never approaching the same level as the Talking Heads material), ‘Genius of Love’ at first seems like it is present as a simple trade-off for Byrne being allowed to drop a solo track into the gig earlier on. But at the end of the song, the real reason for this Tom Tom Club interlude is revealed. Byrne just needed time to slip away and change into an oversized business suit. It all seems so obvious now!
The big suit is perhaps Stop Making Sense‘s most indelible image. It is pitched perfectly between the outlandish and the everyday. The suit is not ludicrously big but it is disconcertingly outsize. Byrne stated that he wanted to make his head look smaller, a window into his unusual way of looking at things. The song that accompanies the big suit sequence, ‘Girlfriend is Better’, is another highlight, a superb track enhanced by the images that accompany it. Although the suit is slowly stripped away, the energy and excitement it generates remains throughout the rest of the set, an extended cover of Al Green’s ‘Take Me to the River’ and the aforementioned ‘Cross Eyed and Painless’.
With Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme made the greatest concert film in cinema history (narrowly pipping Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz), in turn spawning one of the great accompanying live albums. While Demme went on to find more widespread acclaim in the early 90s, Talking Heads went their separate ways after three more albums. Before the split, Byrne himself took to the director’s chair for the brilliant True Stories, a hilarious, sweet-natured little film peppered with new Talking Heads songs and featuring Byrne in the lead role of our guide to an oddball small town and its inhabitants. For all their subsequent successes however, Stop Making Sense still feels like a high watermark in both men’s careers. Most concert films come with the prerequisite that you like the band who are the subject. In this case, it’s not necessary. Stop Making Sense is an unforgettable experience for fans and non-fans alike and has the surprising power to covert the latter into the former in 90 perfect minutes.
The restored edition of Stop Making Sense is released on DVD and Bluray on 16th November 2015. The brilliant extras include a commentary with Demme and the band, a one hour band press conference, bonus tracks ‘Cities’ and ‘Big Business/I Zimbra’, the typically hilarious ‘David Byrne interviews David Byrne’ and the legendary video for ‘Once in a Lifetime’.