Stop Making Sense has been written about more since Jonathan Demme’s death in April than any of his other films.
Stop Making Sense has been written about more since Jonathan Demme’s death in April than any of his other films. “Greatest Concert Film of all Time” usually appears somewhere in the headlines, but that’s the sort of declaration people start making when an artist dies and nostalgia kicks in. But in the case of this film, something wonderful and pioneering happened between Demme and the band Talking Heads.
In a remembrance posted shortly after Demme’s death, Talking Heads front man David Byrne said that one could sense the director’s love of ordinary people through his movies. Well, no group of extraordinary people ever appeared more ordinary than the members of Talking Heads. Pioneers of what would one day be dubbed normcore, their fashion was more like the staff of a record store or one of those new fangled video stores than rock stars. Drummer Chris Frantz could even be mistaken for the manager of such an outlet when he walks onstage in his teal polo shirt. But that was the charm of Talking Heads. They were the wonderfully weird art kids in the back of every school bus, the same shapes and sizes as the rest of us.
They were rock stars you could identify with, but rock stars nonetheless, elevated by the stage. That’s a gulf for a fan, and Demme sought to close the distance. Cameramen carrying small (for the time) handheld cameras moved about the stage, becoming part of the show and creating a roadie’s-eye-view of the concert. Byrne has said that the idea was to show how a concert gets made and he and Demme certainly accomplish this feat. The film opens on Byrne’s white sneakers while he walks onstage. He stops, places a boombox onstage and says “Hi. I have a tape I want to play you.” The camera slowly pans up Byrne’s body while he plays “Psycho Killer” on an acoustic guitar. The stage is barren, but roadies slowly begin to place instruments and dress the stage behind the front man while he staggers about the stage.
Tina Weymouth joins Byrne for “Heaven” while a platform is constructed behind them. The drums are placed on the platform and Frantz walks onstage for “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel.” Jerry Harrison appears behind Byrne for “Found a Job,” and the main quartet of Talking Heads is complete. Each member has been introduced like they are characters in a musical. Demme gives them their individual close-ups as they acknowledge their bandmates and look for cues from Frantz and Byrne. What had been an empty stage has been filled in four songs with the audience bearing witness to the construction. Backup players Alex Weir, Steve Scales, Bernie Worrell, and singers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt appear as the show grows more elaborate. All the while Demme keeps his camera close to the performers.
Accounts of the making of Stop Making Sense lay the conceptual genius at the feet of David Byrne. The film is the document of a tour to support Speaking in Tongues that was well underway before Demme came to make his film over three nights at LA’s Pantages Theater late in 1983. The costumes, props and sophisticated lighting were already in place. It all pleased Byrne so much that he wanted to make a movie out of it and was a fan of Demme. But the front man was very generous in his assessment of his director, making it clear that Demme was essential in re-imagining what a concert film could be. Said Byrne:
“Stop Making Sense was character driven too. Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities.”
What those distinct personalities are doing for 90 minutes is having fun. From the opening beats of “Psycho Killer,” Byrne ostrich struts around the stage like an extra from the Monty Python “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch. The rest of the band feeds off his manic dance. They exude boundless joy for making music in every close-up and onstage medium shot. They smile, dance, perform and syphon Byrne’s energy. The camera is never far from him. If this is a theatrical ensemble, he is very clearly its star.
Demme stays with his players for as long as he can, but it’s a mistake to say that he ignores the audience. While there are scant shots from the band’s point-of-view of their adoring masses, Demme creates a kind of virtual reality with long shots of the stage from the back of the theater as well as stage left and stage right. Editing sequences from those vantages creates the sense of being in the theater, feeling the heat from the stage lights and smelling the bad weed from the cheap seats. Creating sequences from fixed shots of character points-of-view would become a Demme signature. He’s perfecting the technique here, augmenting the sense of intimacy between the artists and the audience.
There is no shot wasted here, no sense of bloat. The band and their filmmaker turn in a lean, visceral 90 minutes. Whether it is the greatest of its genre is a declaration for other articles, but the fact that the film was redefining is inarguable. Stop Making Sense is the perfect alchemy of a band and a director, the former at its peak while the latter was just reaching his.