Combustible Celluloid Review - Stop Making Sense (1984), Jonathan Demme, Talking Heads, Jonathan Demme, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, Bernie Worrell, Alex Weir, Steve Scales, Lynn Mabry, Ednah Holt
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With: David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, Bernie Worrell, Alex Weir, Steve Scales, Lynn Mabry, Ednah Holt
Written by: Jonathan Demme, Talking Heads
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
MPAA Rating: PG for brief suggestive material
Running Time: 88
Date: 04/24/1984

Stop Making Sense (1984)

4 Stars (out of 4)

What a Day That Was

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many, including myself, have called Stop Making Sense the greatest concert film ever made, and now, for its (almost) fortieth anniversary, A24 is taking that phrase and using it as fact. And they wouldn't be wrong. The film has been restored in 4K from the original negative, and seeing it on the big screen is an incredible experience. I'd seen it many times previously, mostly on home video or streaming, once in an unfortunately nearly-empty theater, but this time I found myself singing along and even clapping between songs, while I spied others dancing in the aisles.

In 1978, Martin Scorsese made the concert film into an art with The Last Waltz, but director Jonathan Demme did him one better by boiling Stop Making Sense down to its essence. It begins with a bare stage. We can see roadies and technicians backstage, a wooden staircase, and tape markers all over the floor. David Byrne comes out, looking neat and lean in a suit and tie. He carries a guitar and a boom box. He sets the latter down and calmly says, "I have a tape I wanna play for you." Some electronic beats sound out, and after a count, Byrne strums his guitar and belts out "Psycho Killer," stopping at one point for a herky-jerky dance.

Blonde Tina Weymouth — wearing what my daughter called "triangle pants" — joins him with her bass for a gentle acoustic version of "Heaven." Some bustling appears to be happening behind them, as risers and instruments are being prepared. Drums are brought out along with Chris Frantz for a performance of "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," a tune from their second LP. The fourth band member, guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison, emerges for the fourth song, "Found a Job."

The foursome are joined by others: percussionist Steve Scales, backup singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt, guitarist Alex Weir, and keyboardist Bernie Worrell. (It's a wonderfully diverse group, right at home here in 2023.) Before long they are all dancing with abandon, unafraid to look silly, shining with exuberance. Byrne, still wearing his suit and tie, and having danced like a maniac through several songs, decides to run laps around the stage. He's got energy to burn.

The bare stage is now gone, and it begins to look like a professional show. During one song, groups of three seemingly random words are projected on the wall. In another, the band members are lit from below, casting giant shadows. For the sublime "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," the group gathers together around a living room lamp. And for "Girlfriend Is Better," Byrne appears wearing his iconic "big suit." (He had me laughing many times.)

It's only during the last song, "Crosseyed and Painless," that Demme lets us see some audience members for the first time, and we realize that the entire thing was conceived for the camera. It was designed as cinema, rather than as a mere record of a live show. What's amazing is that this simple idea, while enormously successful, has rarely (if ever) been used since, allowing Stop Making Sense to continue its reign in the #1 spot.

My daughter, who accompanied me to the screening, wished the band could have performed "Road to Nowhere," and indeed, that would have been awesome, but that song had yet to be released. The sixteen songs in the movie break down thusly: one is from the band's debut LP, Talking Heads: 77, three are from More Songs About Buildings and Food, two are from Fear of Music, two are from Remain in Light, and six are from the 1983 Speaking in Tongues, whose tour this was. Byrne gets a break as the Tom Tom Club performs "Genius of Love" ("James Brown? James Brown!"), and the sixteenth song is a rare Byrne solo track, "What a Day That Was."

In essence, what is truly great about this film, certainly one of the greatest ever made, is the way it builds and builds and builds. And it's sustained. Everyone here seems to want to be here, and everyone enjoys each other's company, each other's musicianship, each other's energy. It's transporting. Then there's the center of the movie, the Talking Heads, one of the great oddball bands, and their wonderful, wonderful music.

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