Great Film | Stop Making Sense (1984)



Untitled-1Pablo Ferro’s unmistakable titles flash across the screen. There is a V of light on the floor that’s beaming through an open doorway. In steps a man; we only see his feet. The crowd cheers off screen somewhere. He walks to the edge of the stage and places a boom box by the foot of a microphone stand. “Hi. I’ve got a tape I wanna play”. He presses play on the radio and the beat of “Psycho Killer” kicks in.

This is the opening of Stop Making Sense, a concert movie of impeccable design and energetic performance, of creative decisions and vibrant music. “Psycho Killer” opens the concert with nothing but the radio and lead singer David Byrne. “Heaven” follows, and with it, the bassist Tina Weymouth. Next is “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel”, and drummer Chris Frantz is added to the scene. Before long, the entire band is on stage, added one by one, in between songs.

The band is of course Talking Heads, a New Wave quartet founded in the early ’70s and disbanded in 1991. They never reached mainstream success, but I guess mainstream success was never their mission. One look at David Byrne and even the poppiest music lover of today will know that he doesn’t belong on stage at the American Music Awards or even the Grammys. He belongs right here on this stage, sweating, jogging, and gyrating as if doing an aerobics workout. And the charm of his energy is that it passes through his bandmates and into the gyrating bodies of all his fans.

The movie is directed by Jonathan Demme, who collaborates with Byrne on almost every aspect of the filmmaking process, from designing the flow of the concert, to orchestrating camera angles and overall coverage. Though the coverage itself is not all that special, the visuals created by the band — and by the blackened equipment — are beautiful to look at. When the camera pulls out to a symmetrical wide shot, how lovely it is to see actual human beings playing instruments and tapping their feet while being the only coloured objects on the stage. The contrast is astounding.

Byrne has been notorious for dictating the creative direction of Heads. I am sure that when they split up in 1991 he felt like a free man just released from prison where he spent every waking moment shackled to his cellmates. He has since embarked on a successful solo career and has duetted with multiple artists (St. Vincent, Arcade Fire), though he’s never reformed his old band or created a new one. Weymouth and husband Chris Frantz on the other hand, who both formed the side project Tom Tom Club in the ’80s, continue to play together today. Something tells me that the separation in 1991 was far from amicable.

Anyway, Byrne’s input on Stop Making Sense is perhaps the reason why it is such an indelible piece of music cinema. Many concerts these days don’t pay attention to the stage, and what the stage can do with minimal effort. It’s all technology and hydraulics now. Platforms rise automatically. The stage turns 360 degrees, or the floor becomes the backdrop and from below spring up countless dancers. It is not so much an art form as it is a giant leap forward in the field of musical spectacle. The stage isn’t a character that’s a part of the performance anymore; it is merely a prop, a well-dressed prop aimed at wowing the crowd. But here on the Talking Heads stage, under the direct supervision of Byrne, the stage becomes a member of the band. It grows and morphs as the songs change, from a skeletal mess to a classy array of bright colours and projected images. All the while the stagehands are rearranging equipment and gear as if the audience cannot see them. But they are clearly visible, and that’s the point. The concert is raw and unadorned; it lets the music shine.

And what lovely music it is too. Since the late ’70s when the band’s first album emerged, it was clear that their music strew together different genres and styles in addition to the normal rock and roll. There’s reggae in there somewhere. There’s gospel. There’s a bit of neo-punk. And there’re touches of David Byrne’s radical flair that transcends the music and influences the way he performs on stage. Just watch him throughout this concert. Watch him closely and try your best not to feel exhausted for him. I suspect there’s a large stash of Gatorade hidden somewhere behind the drumming platform. He jogs on the spot with his backup singers. He marches on the spot with his guitarists. He runs around the stage. He vibrates his body during the classic performance of “Once In A Lifetime”. He lies on his back and pulsates on the ground. He comes out towards the end in a giant suit that must be like a mobile sauna, and still he dances in it. He does things while singing that most people wouldn’t do even at gunpoint, and you can tell he’s physically exhausted by it. But he loves it. He loves the music, and with every smile he cheekily sends his fans, he exudes a love for life.

I’m not sure if I chose this movie as one of my Essentials because I’ve been a fan of Talking Heads for a while now, or because the movie is just that good. I think it’s a combination of both. I can listen to the music without the movie and feel a sense of joy running through my veins. Conversely, I can watch the visuals on mute and still smile at the exuberance displayed by the performers. It works both ways, and all at once. There is an energy to this movie that’s difficult to find elsewhere. And for that matter, there is music in this movie that cannot be found elsewhere either. It exists here and now as part of a time capsule that, if opened 500 years from now, will make the heads of our future human selves bob with the wide-eyed, almost psychotic gaze of David Byrne. And they will remember him.

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