Stop Making Sense (1984) – Review

Stop Making Sense [1984]

Duration: 88 minutes

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A still from Stop Making Sense

 

I’m not really into pronouncements and I generally refrain from calling something ‘the best ever’ but Stop Making Sense is the greatest concert movie ever made. It is a splendid intersection of music and cinema and there is nothing like it. Nobody has tried making something like it. The fact that the band itself never toured again after this confirms the importance of this document of just how good they were.

This movie was shot during two live performances of the Talking Heads, a New York rock band led by the remarkably talented, David Byrne, who seems so happy to be alive and making music. It serves as a painful reminder of how jaded and fake many rock bands have become. Directed by Jonathan Demme (who, won five Oscars including Best Director for 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs), is primarily a series of visuals. The visuals are of enormous energy. They convey a life being lived at a joyous high. There are a lot of reasons to see concert films and I watched this because I love the music of Talking Heads (which might make you dance). If you don’t like the music, you could watch the film which is just as exhilarating. The opening credits, with elongated blank-and-white font,  are similar to the ones used in Dr. Strangelove (which is because they were designed by the same man).

One of Byrne’s many inspired ideas for this tour was introducing the band gradually, one or two members at a time. At the outset, the camera picks Byrne’s white sneakers and follows them onto the stage. He places a boombox on the ground and pushes play. He is positively hypnotic, jerky head moments, excellent voice and crazy eyes lead you to focus only on him. There is a sudden whoop by the audience (who are barely seen and heard thereafter) at the sight of him and we now know the show is about to begin. The minimal opening is in fact a misdirection. The show features a total of nine musicians, multiple visuals, bizarre costume changes, amusing continuity errors, strange props and a cameo appearance by a different band altogether (Tom Tom Club).  But the start is electrifying  and it sets the stage for the concert to pick up tempo.

The entire band comes on one at a time, only reaching full strength during ‘Burning Down The House’, which is full of so much creative vitality and raw energy that I half expected someone to burst into flames. The light turns every object and person into a series of creepy shadows. Roger Ebert described this as a light show with elements of Fritz Lang’s classic, Metropolis.

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When David Byrne dances, his body moves like rubber, capable of being bent in all directions in perfect time to the music. His energy extends to doing laps of the stage being chased by a searchlight when ‘Life During Wartime’ plays, cradling a lamp in his arms during ‘This Must Be The Place’ and there is also the oversized suit and theatrics. Then there is the music. You can see influences of classic rock ‘n’ roll, country singing, elements of reggae and funk and even gospel. The Talking Heads do sound like music.

My favorite part of this performance (apart from the infectious, boundless energy of ‘Burning Down The House’) is the tape that David Byrne carries with him at the start. The moment I saw it, I thought to myself, surely he is not going to play it. And when he does hit play, I thought, there is no way that box is making that deafening sound.  Any concert movie, or any documentary based on events in the past, is usually a record of events. It is stale, in that sense. You are watching something that is already over. It is not easy to connect to something that you know is over. But here you have this man who says he is going to play this tape and you are going to listen to this song he wrote. Well, not really. You know it is fake. But you go along because it is good. That is what the film is. It is intimate. It is you and the band being friends.

A decision was clearly made to avoid stock shots of cheering fans (mostly because they are not really fans cheering at those moment). The movie begins with Byrne, alone, at the back of the stage, with the audience visible behind him, and then he is shown from the back of the house, with the audience visible in front of him. It is like being inside a cavern.

There is a sense of an emptiness that will be filled. Stop Making Sense harnesses an emotional power that other concert movies don’t seem to be aware of. Normally you won’t see stage crew and roadies share the stage with performers, unless there was a technical snafu. But in Stop Making Sense, the stage crew are on for much of the first half, moving around equipment in the middle of songs; the band play on regardless, and even bring them all on at the end. Some of the stage crew are seen enjoying the music from the wings. This suggests family rather than just band members. The fact that it suggests anything at all makes it unique in our post-MTV world. The movie manages to set up a narrative in its first number and build on it, sustain it, without seeming even a bit pretentious. That is miraculous.

There have been great concert movies. The Last Waltz captured The Band’s final performance with Robbie Robertson and it was directed by Martin Scorcese. Gimme Shelter showed the Rolling Stones at the height of commercial success, along with a now infamous on-camera murder. However, Gimme Shelter and The Last Waltz captured the ends of their respective eras. Stop Making Sense, released in 1984, is a showcase for Talking Heads at their artistic peak and a record of musical exuberance and yet it has that mournful quality that only good art evokes.

Everybody does their thing. They sing, dance, and run. They change instruments and clothes for 18 songs with clear lyrics. In this film, the Talking Heads don’t really talk but they make sense and they don’t stop.

Stop Making Sense on: IMDb | Wikipedia | YouTube

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