Friday, February 15, 2013

Stop Making Sense (1984)

USA, 88 minutes, documentary
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Jonathan Demme, Talking Heads
Photography: Jordan Cronenweth
Music: Talking Heads: David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Ednah Holt, Lynn Mabry, Steven Scales, Alex Weir, Bernie Worrell
Editor: Lisa Day

It's interesting to think about what one does with favorite bands. As a point of conversation I used to argue for the importance of always having one, or several: favorite locals, favorite performers, favorite within genres, favorite favorites. At some points, overwhelmed by so many choices, it becomes a pretty good problem to have. Many happy years can go by where the thought is basically on when a next album is coming out and/or a next show happening. Then one day something changes—the band breaks up, puts out a bad album, somebody says something stupid, a death—something—and it doesn't have the same allure anymore.

Talking Heads were like that for me, my favorite band from 1978 when I first heard the debut and then the follow-up. I stuck with them all the way to 1986 and True Stories, which was too rancid, and left a bad taste that's still there. Stop Making Sense was a high point of the good years, coming even as the band was visibly beginning to fracture and it was easy to wonder each time if there was going to be anything more. I saw the movie on its release and it was more than I could have hoped for, as was the album that followed the next year, Little Creatures, the last good thing they ever did. I actually saw Stop Making Sense a few times, and that was back when it felt more like an odd extravagance to see a movie more than once. Then it became a casualty of backlashing reassessments.

That itself raises questions I think are interesting about what we do with our favorites. Sometimes we slavishly follow along, pretend it's all of a certain high level, though we rarely listen to it more than a few weeks, or days. You see this in followers of David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and others. Bob Dylan, though he also has lifelong followers, represents more starkly the other avenue: rejection, loathing, and feelings of betrayal, which Dylan has actually managed to do many times, losing me for 10 years for example with the late-'70s turn to Jesus. Thinking about it, I have tended toward this second avenue a little more often, not just with Talking Heads but also Steely Dan. The Beatles took the choice away from me by breaking up. With the Pet Shop Boys I have clung to the first, slavish avenue (although with Fundamental even I have had to stop pretending the new albums interest me that much).

It was more than 20 years since I had seen Stop Making Sense (always in theaters) when I picked up the DVD and took a look again. But one more thing I should say about favorite bands—I realized I'm more talking about recording acts and records, where the relationship is largely conducted via recordings played at home. I have never seen the Beatles, Pet Shop Boys, or Steely Dan, and saw Talking Heads only once, in 1979, and it was not a good show. A whole other part of my brain is dedicated to performing acts (James Brown, Patti Smith, Wedding Present, Jesus Lizard, Walkabouts all high on this list) and it's like I have a different relationship with them. One of the greatest shows I've ever seen was U2 in 1983, but otherwise I don't give that band much thought. Their recordings are always at a certain listenable range but rarely compelling.

So when I say Stop Making Sense is the greatest concert film ever made, it's in something of a narrow way. It's a good show, but cluttered with camera crews and extra lighting crews, some light show stuff I think doesn't work even in the movie, and a whole shtick about starting it out by putting the band together one piece at a time. It's hard to know what I'd think if I were there. But what it does to see it in this movie—it's hard to describe. It's visceral and exciting and gripping—yes, this tired old smug art-damaged relic of the arch '80s. Everything that made Talking Heads great, and more specifically everything that made Talking Heads records great, is here. They are funny, creative, clever, they never stop trying, and the groove is set at constant lock-solid irresistible.

The picture from above is a good example. The image itself charges me up. It's from the opening, after the Dr. Strangelove lettering of the credits in silence, when David Byrne walks out on stage by himself with a guitar and a boombox, sets down the boombox, says, "I've got a tape I want to play," pushes the button, and begins the greatest 30 to 35 minutes of live music on film, adding members with each song: first "Psycho Killer" with Byrne solo, getting the obligatory signature song out of the way, then "Heaven" with Tina Weymouth (and Lynn Mabry offstage), "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel" with Chris Frantz, "Found a Job" with Jerry Harrison, "Slippery People" with Mabry, Edna Holt, and Steve Scales, and "Burning Down the House" with Alex Weir and Bernie Worrell. It is, in itself, a précis of the history of the band, missing only (and sadly so) some sort of cameo for Brian Eno.

It is also amazingly good. By the time "Slippery People" is full throttle, and the running in place and all the sheer physical exuberance takes hold, it's a locomotive engine at full steam, dense, powerful, thrilling. Mabry and Holt in kinda sorta jogging outfits are a great presence, pure energy and sexy, looking good, sounding good, following Byrne's lead on all the big goofy gestures. On "Burning Down the House," full band, a band that can flat play. Amazing version. That's followed by "Life During Wartime," probably the single best performance here, with Byrne running circles around the stage and the band just tearing it up. At the end of it, the smug Byrne who cannot help himself, approaches the mike and says, "Thank you. Does anybody have any questions?"

I'll give him that moment of triumphalism. He and all of them earned it for what just transpired. The remaining hour is afterglow, with many more high points from the catalog, including a turn for the Tom Tom Club. Jonathan Demme directed this movie but it feels less like a Demme film and more like a Talking Heads film, in the way that Swimming to Cambodia feels like a Spalding Gray movie—that transparency is Demme. So is the love for music and the visual latitude he is willing to give Byrne in staging it. I remain deeply suspicious of David Byrne and even to some degree of Talking Heads, which are the same thing in many ways—all that is a whole other subject. But it's not hard to set aside every bit of it when this movie plays.

Top 10 of 1984
I went to a lot of movies in 1984 so I'll give you 20. There was a lot of entertainment to be had, a lot of popcorn made and eaten, and that's what seemed to matter. It was a time when multiplexes were still a new thing and one could spend all day in them ducking from theater to theater. I lived in Minneapolis then and they were particularly good for getting out of the heat in the summer. Good times, good times.
1. Stop Making Sense
2. This Is Spinal Tap
3. Once Upon a Time in America
4. Paris, Texas
5. Streetwise
6. Stranger Than Paradise
7. Choose Me
8. Amadeus
9. Starman
10. Racing With the Moon
11. Gremlins
12. A Nightmare on Elm Street
13. Body Double
14. The Terminator
15. Blood Simple
16. Beverly Hills Cop
17. Ghostbusters
18. Romancing the Stone
19. Purple Rain
20. Broadway Danny Rose

Didn't like so much: Boy Meets Girl, The Cotton Club, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984, Swing Shift

Gaps: Comfort and Joy, Heimat, Love Streams, A Passage to India, Where the Green Ants Dream

Other write-ups: Little City in Space


  1. I've always associated this movie as when my Talking Head's enthusiasm began to wane, although I have very little memory of it other than Byrne's oversized suit. But your write-up here is so good I need to revisit the film and question. Did see him on Colbert this past year, though, and let's just say his eccentric charms have not aged very well.

  2. 1984 is a surprisingly strong year - there are just a ton of movies I really like or love, American and foreign, short, feature, and miniseries, animated and live-action. A compelling mix of greats from the arthouse to the blockbuster multiplex.

    I love Stop Making Sense - it and Heimat are probably my favorite films of the year - and it's always interesting for me to read the perspective from people who were around at the time. They often seem to tie it in with a certain disillusionment that came either right before or right after (although I do know one person my age who has the same reaction).

    First couple times I saw this was on the big screen and it works really well in that venue. I'm sure as a concert it was nowhere near as compelling as it is onscreen but that's part of why it's a great concert film - I think the best will usually put some sort of emphasis on the "film" part of concert film over the "concert."