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Stop Making Sense: The Greatest Concert Movie of All Time.


by Paul Deeter


In 1984, Talking Heads were one of the biggest bands in the world while simultaneously being one of the hardest bands to define. Post their initial release of the positively received Talking Heads 77, they would find fame in their eclectic range of arthouse-funk and dance-pop style of music. As every great band has, they found their core working with Brian Eno, starting with 1978's More Songs about Buildings and Food. Brian Eno's influence on bands such as U2 inspired some of rock's greatest concept albums, and the work with Talking Heads was no exception. Eno's work on Fear of Music specifically can be heard echoed on his later works; "I Zimbra" is a good example of afro-centric beats mixed with dance music, and that's just the opener! Remain in Light remains (ha) their most recognizable album due to the largest top 20 hit "Once in a Lifetime" being released and becoming Talking Heads' most successful album. But importantly, it wasn't until the tour of the following album Speaking in Tongues that Talking Heads fell under the film spotlight along with their influence on the radio-waves. And if it sounds like I'm skimming over years of music history, well, it's because I am. I could write a full article on the overall influence of Talking Heads and their many studio albums, but its a testament to the power of the band that a film about them would be one of the most influential landmarks in music along with film history.


Jonathan Demme, who would go on to direct two other concert films, was fairly well-known for his sometimes exploitative films, and others with early prestige quality that would predate his major critical and award-winning success with The Silence of the Lambs. While not directing, he campaigned many politically liberal stances. His adjacency to the music scene came into effect in the music videos and other film work he would do involving political artists. But 1984 was significant for the successful tour that Demme would attract viewers to in the Talking Heads career. As I mentioned Speaking in Tongues was being toured, and maybe their biggest show was captured on film in December of 1983 at Hollywood's Pantages Theater over the course of three separate nights.


"Hi. I got a tape I'd like to play."

With a budget of 1.2 million gathered by the band itself, the film's straightforward shooting style would avoid the particular crowd effect that other concert films have past utilized. This was because Demme... discovered that filming the audience required additional lighting, which inhibited the audience's energy. This in turn made the band feel insecure and thus led to "the worst Talking Heads performance in the history of the band's career.." Little did they know this would be considered the opposite in the film's all time legacy. Between the strength of the performances of David Byrne, the insanely fast drumming from Chris Frantz, solid guitarist Jerry Harrison and all time-great bassist Tina Weymouth (who also performed a song from her band Tom Tom Club: "Genius of Love." Everyone is on the top of their game here, supported by fire background vocals and synchronized dancing from many other talents outside of the band. I'd argue the only slow-down of the film is the inclusion of "Genius of Love" but only because it feels like the outlier it is to Byrne's work. But the film is still considered by Leonard Maltin' "one of the greatest rock movies ever made", and was even selected by the Library of Congress as a film of "cultural, historic or artistic significance".


The film starts with a solo performance by Byrne, walking on stage as the camera follows his feet and watches him set down a boombox. He speaks the first line of the film: "Hi, I got a tape I'd like to play." and goes on to perform "Psycho Killer" on an acoustic guitar. What starts off as a simple beat performance turns into quite a physical venture when the gunshot-like beats cause Byrne to stagger "like Jean-Paul Belmondo in the final minutes of 'Breathless,' a hero succumbing, surprised, to violence that he'd thought he was prepared for." We get at this point that we're already in for a much more visual and unusual concert film, and we get all-time incredible movie moments of visual beauty throughout. Byrne dancing with a lamp to the song "Naive Melody: This Must Be the Place" sounds ridiculous but its one of the sweetest things I've ever seen in a film. The visual flourishes accentuate the killer sound mixing of the film along with the impressive stage work. It's important to note that the film actually uses very simplistic stage setting for the performance. After Byrne walks out to "Psycho Killer" alone, he's joined track by track with more band members, each adding a level of instrumentation required for the track.


The stage is eventually massive, with backup dancers and singers in numbers. This helps the boldness of a song like "Burning Down the House" which is one of the most brass live song I've ever heard by the band. The building guitar of the song is backed by a barely audible shout of Byrne saying: "Who's got a match?" Awesome. But the awesomeness is surrounded by beauty, like the sweetness of the track "Heaven" which is 'a place where nothing really happens' foregrounded to a mostly empty stage at that point. And the metaphors come in heavier with his now famous use of a ridiculously over-sized suit during one of the later tracks, to which he said:


"I was in Japan in between tours and I was checking out traditional Japanese theater – Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku – and I was wondering what to wear on our upcoming tour. A fashion designer friend (Jurgen Lehl) said in his typically droll manner, 'Well David, everything is bigger on stage.' He was referring to gestures and all that, but I applied the idea to a businessman's 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."


The Famous Big Suit.

Other famous moments include Byrne running around the stage in a feat of pure athleticism. This is something I've seen done at live showings of this movie (to ushers' disapproval). There's also the famous red-backing coloration to the devil-like Byrne presence in the song "Swamp" with its murky presentation.


Stop Making Sense is the kind of movie to see with a crowd. It is a technical and musical monument of a movie. Its the greatest concert movie of all time. At places like the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee, its a dance party. If it doesn't make you move, you're a statue. And who could forget the final line of the movie? "Any questions?"


I've got nothing.




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