Talking Heads on stage
image: Michael Markos/ Wikimedia Commons

Stop Making Sense 35 Years Later: Still The Quintessential Concert Film

Hi. I’ve got a tape I wanna play” is how David Byrne opens his defining live album. He lays down a beatbox and begins an acoustic version of the immortal classic ‘Psycho Killer’ completely alone. A man and his music. The beginning of a narrative that will unfold as the music continues. What would’ve usually remained as a once in a lifetime experience, thanks to Jonathan Demme instead remains the quintessential concert film. The name of the band is Talking Heads. This is Stop Making Sense

One song at a time, Byrne is joined by members of the band. At first one of the world’s finest bass players (and the reason for me picking up a bass guitar), Tina Weymouth joins for the beautiful ‘Heaven’. During this song, a drum kit is positioned on stage by stagehands. What sets this performance apart from so many other concert films is that it has no desire to hide the construction and production of the show. It’s clear that Talking Heads and Demme believe that the stagehands are just as important as they are. During the next song, Chris Frantz, of course, takes a seat at the drums. The atmosphere is already emerging, a community is building. Finally, guitarist Jerry Harrison joins them on stage. 

The crucial aspect of what makes Stop Making Sense the greatest concert film ever made is its sense of community – music as a tool to bring people together, and this is demonstrated perfectly through its attitude towards the backing singers and performers. Arriving on stage to begin a rendition of ‘Slippery People, they are given just as much screen time as the band themselves. Here they are not reduced to backing or studio musicians. Tonight they are Talking Heads, immortalised by film, they are always Talking Heads. 

It has no desire to hide the construction and production of the show

And for matters of representation is to say nothing of the music itself. I firmly believe that you haven’t heard a Talking Heads song until you’ve heard it live, and there is no better evidence of that than the performances present here. The rendition of ‘Slippery People’ is the best version of the song you will ever witness, and yet it is nothing compared to what comes next. ‘Burning Down the House’ radiates enough energy to power your street for the next year: it is surely the finest live performance ever captured, based purely on the energy being transmitted.

It’s interesting to note that Demme never succumbs to any fancy editing or camera tricks to create false energy. He understands the power these songs have, they are doing all the work. The apparent lack of crowd shots, unusual in a genre where the director constantly feels the need to cut to a close up of an audience member enjoying themselves, is surely a testament to the band’s ability. They never appeal to you to tell you how you should be feeling, because you’re already feeling it – it’s almost like you are there, an active participant. But that is not to say that Demme is simply capturing the performance, in fact far from it.

Stop Making Sense absolutely nails the importance of music: bringing people together as one, an act of communion, one where David Byrne is the Pope. It is no coincidence that Byrne reprises his role of an evangelical preacher from the masterpiece of a music video that is ‘Once in a Lifetime’

It is surely the finest live performance ever captured

The setlist of this live performance certainly cements it as the finest concert of all time. Somehow managing to achieve the impossible of not featuring a single dull number, as a viewer/listener you find yourself losing total control over your bodies movements, an act of almost religious intoxication. Weymouth’s smooth bass lines and Byrne’s outstanding stage presence prove to be incredibly infectious. If you weren’t a Talking Heads fan before, you absolutely will be one a few songs in. 

Moments of genius lyricism shine through here too. “We got computers, we’re tapping phone lines/I know that that ain’t allowed” from ‘Life During Wartime’ almost prophecies what the world will become, and what I’m sure was expected to only reflect on the era of B-movie actor Ronald Reagan, Making Flippy Floppy’s line: “Our president’s crazy/Did you hear what he said?” instead remains accurately relevant and poignant in the current year of 2019. Stop Making Sense? It’s a question of if we ever even started… 

Stop Making Sense was created as a way to promote Talking Heads’ album Speaking in Tongues, and the title comes from a repeated line during ‘Girlfriend is Better’, and it would be no surprise to learn if the film was conceptualised before the concert. With Jordan Cronenweth (that of Blade Runner fame) acting as Director of Photography, the film contains some stunning lighting and imagery, most notably during the rendition of ‘Swamp’. This is certainly a cinematic experience, not just a filmed concert. 

Taking it’s role of cinematic experience that step further, Stop Making Sense commits to a narrative, one of a timid, anxious man (Byrne) entering an arena: “I can’t seem to face up to the facts/ I’m tense and nervous, and I can’t relax”, to finally allowing himself to exit his shell, finally becoming himself, a narrative I’m sure is exceptionally true and personal to Byrne.

This process may involve running multiple laps around the stage during ‘Life During Wartime’, playing/dancing with a lamp and exiting and then returning in a big suit, but would you have David Byrne any other way? This big suit in question has become an iconic image of the band and Byrne himself. His explanation behind the suit: “I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head” is a perfect summation of Stop Making Sense, and perhaps Talking Head’s entire discography.

The fact that he leaves the stage to change into it, allowing Weymouth and Frantz’s The Tom Tom Club to perform an all-time classic in the form of ‘Genius of Love’ is perhaps the concert’s secret weapon. Whereas other setlists may treat a moment like this as an off-hand bonus feature, here it is fully incorporated and a highlight of the entire night, with Weymouth showing off her leading woman talent, and iconic bass hooks, and Frantz yelling out phrases that seemingly come to mind (“the girls can do it too, y’all” and “James Brown/He still is the Godfather of Soul, y’all, so check it out!” are highlights), it may just well be the finest version of the track. An edit involving cutting to a close up of Frantz when Weymouth sings the line “I’m in heaven/ With my boyfriend, my laughing boyfriend” is a nice little tribute to their loving relationship. 

This is certainly a cinematic experience, not just a filmed concert

Just before its time to go, Byrne introduces every single person on stage by name. Its clear Byrne believes in the power and importance of music as a community, of bringing everyone together. It should come as no surprise to see during the rendition of ‘Girlfriend is Better’, Byrne hands the microphone to a lighting technician, allowing him to sing the repeated “Stop making sense” lyric. Turning around to the camera as if to hand us the audience the mic only helps the film achieve what so little of its genre does: for this brief moment, this one night, we are one. We are Talking Heads. To preach my own Naive Melody: “If someone asks/This is where I’ll be”. This Must Be the Place indeed. 

What would usually remain as a coke-fuelled relic of its era, instead is a capsule of perfection. No other concert need be filmed again. No other live album is necessary. In 2019, 35 years later, thanks to Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads are still ‘Burning Down The House’. Same as it ever was…

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