Stop Making Sense Review
So it was the early Eighties, I was taking in my years at university, attending enough lectures to get me by and enjoying the hospitality of the student union with as many fellow students as possible. I was being introduced to some new musical avenues, and the main band I was continually told to listen to was The Talking Heads. I had known them from their "Once in a Lifetime" single, however now I revelled in their "Fear of Music" and "Remain in Light" albums where they started tinkering with and integrating alternative African or South American styled beats into their late Seventies post punk / post funk / post pop music. This was one band that was difficult to define... yes they were popular (at the start in an underground sort of way), yes they had some brief punk influences and yes they were a little funky. The sum of the parts were so much more than the whole in this instance and in all reality that summation has to be attributed to one man, David Byrne; two if you count producer Brian Eno!
Then, in 1983, The Talking Heads released what many would regard as their finest work yet... "Speaking in Tongues", and with that in the can the band decided to tour. Part of this tour was filmed at Hollywood's Pantages Theater in December of that year, and that film would become the best concert footage to date. In my own opinion is has yet to be bettered; Roger Waters' Live in the Flesh comes close because of the sheer talent on stage, however The Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense was a tour de force which has still never been equalled.
Just as Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz shows us the last concert of The Band so Stop Making Sense would show us the last ever tour The Talking Heads embarked upon. After Speaking in Tongues the band became more and more David Byrne's plaything and, in 1988, they would produce their last ever album, with the band officially declaring their demise a couple of years later. Noted by many as being one of their main influences, they have left us, and the music industry, with an incredible body of work and Stop Making Sense is part of that.
From the outset this was planned like no other concert before it, not even the talents of Martin Scorsese earlier had the vision to produce what we saw then. Stop Making Sense was released into the cinemas. I was fortunate to see this at The Edinburgh Film Theatre, and it is the one and only time I have seen people get up, move into the aisles and dance. The audience applauded after every song. These people were not attending a movie showing but participating in a concert they were never fortunate enough to attend in the flesh. It was an incredible feeling to be part of that joint experience and even to this day I will still have a wee boogie around my cinema room, such is the energy of this band, and this concert, that it's almost impossible to stay seated and still.
Talent permeates every single aspect of this film. Although initially designed and story-boarded by that great Scotsman, David Byrne, the band brought in professionals to cover the rest of the bases. Director Jonathan Demme would go on to treat us to The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia two good pieces of work. For the opening titles they took a leaf out of Kubrick's book and employed the talents of Pablo Ferro whose titles here are almost an exact copy of what he produced for Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. Cinematography would be handled by Jordan Cronenweth who brought his incredible talents from Blade Runner to bear on this film. A fine enough starting line up if ever there was one only eclipsed here by the performers themselves; the band consisting of David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Franz and Jerry Harrison... the associated backing singers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt, and finally the amassed talents of Bernie Worrell (keyboards), Steve Scales (percussion) and guitarist Alex Weir.
What counts here above all else is structure. We often discuss the films we watch and the three acts they contain, the beginning, middle and end. In all other concert films we're presented with the band members on stage; they get on with it, there's probably an occasional interview or flight of fancy, we enjoy and that's it. Not however with Stop Making Sense, because this does have structure, it has the three aforementioned acts. The opening act presents us with the band members one by one as they and their instruments are wheeled on stage. The closing act opens with David Byrne in his now famous oversized suit and from there on in the concert approaches its final moments. The middle act is just that, the bit in the middle joining the two together. The opening is glorious, full of suspense as we see a pair of white plimsolls walking out on stage, down pops an old beat box cassette player machine (way before the iPOD generation) and David Byrne swings into a lively acoustic version of Psycho Killer. After dancing about on stage like a man demented the players are introduced to us one by one. Tina Weymouth, followed by husband Chris Frantz, the band's line up finishing with guitarist and keyboard man Jerry Harrison. After this we have the backing vocalists and the keyboards, percussion and additional guitarist. The procedure builds layer upon layer until our ensemble is complete. Now at its pinnacle the band, relaxed but charged, fire into Life During Wartime presenting an energy on stage rarely seen before or after. Every one a consummate professional at the top of their game participating in what they undoubtedly know is going to go down as one of the video concerts of all time.
The tempo changes a little with Byrne's homage to the band sung around a standard lamp before The Tom Tom Club take centre stage giving Byrne time to change into his a two piece suit which swallows all of his body. He's a man possessed, always has been and even to this day has an energy and commitment both on and off stage that I have rarely, if ever, seen in anyone else. The set eventually starts to wind down a little with Take me to the River and eventually the set comes to a close. The structure which had built over the first act plateaued out in the second and only during the third was allowed to wane a little, wane in terms of speed but never in terms of passion, excitement or commitment.
This is the visual sense of the movie but there is much more going on which your senses are not immediately taking in. Initially on first viewing you are captivated by the 'feel' of the concert itself, becoming lost in the music. On further investigation though you come to realise that you hardly see the band or their instruments, you rarely notice the microphones that they sing into. From the outset Byrne freely admitting in the accompanying commentary that he was being a little dictatorial at the time and wanted nothing at all on stage that would distract the viewer from the music. Byrne wanted the viewer to 'see' only the music, not even be swayed by the crowd, he wanted each and every one of us to make up our own minds to what we listened to and what we saw performed. It works incredibly well.
I can watch Stop Making Sense time and time again; I am a fan of the band and have been for many a long year. You might not like their music but you cannot argue with the technical aspects of this film. Its precision, planning and execution, the lighting, excellent low light cinematography and the skill of each musician playing and indulging in a concert they would never repeat. For any Talking Heads fan this is everything and more any video concert could have been, something almost akin to being there. It has to be recommended, if only for the dancing in his Big Suit or his metabolic fuelled energy as he belts out Life During Wartime.
- Psycho Killer
- Thank you for Sending me an Angel
- Found a Job
- Slippery People
- Burning Down the House
- Life During Wartime
- Making Flippy Floppy
- What a Day that was (Catherine wheel)
- This must be the place (Naive Melody)
- Once in a Lifetime
- Genius of Love
- Girlfriend is Better
- Take me to the River
- Cross-eyed and Painless
So, does anyone have any questions?
- Psycho Killer