Because they're usually not done very well, concert films have become a rare commodity in movie theaters. Either they're self-inflated and padded with unnecessary material like "U2: Rattle and Hum" (1988), or they're dull, uninvolving attempts to capture what is essentially an ephemeral experience (although "Pink Floyd: Delicate Sound of Thunder" is interesting to watch, it in no way captures the essence of being at a Pink Floyd concert).
"Stop Making Sense," Jonathan Demme's memorable documentary of a 1983 Talking Heads concert, is something of an aberration in this respect, and its 15th anniversary theatrical re-release with a digitally remastered soundtrack is a welcome return. Despite being filmed and pieced together from three back-to-back concerts at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in December of 1983 on the "Speaking in Tongues" tour, the film still manages to maintain an incredible sense of vividness, something that makes you feel like you are actually there.
Perhaps it is the lack of insert shots of the cheering crowd, which usually function as a distancing device by reminding you as the viewer that you are not the real audience. Perhaps it is Demme's simple (but not simplistic) filming style, where he doesn't overindulge his position as director by constantly drawing attention to himself. Instead, he lets the stage act speak for itself. And what an act it is.
Not too many concerts begin with a bare stage that makes visible all the cables and equipment that make the pyrotechnics possible, but this is exactly how "Stop Making Sense" begins. David Byrne, the charismatic lead singer of Talking Heads, walks on stage with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a boom box and tells us that he'd like to play a song. From the moment Byrne switches on the boom box and launches into singing "Psycho Killer," we are transfixed with being there.
Byrne takes us on-stage and invites us to watch as the concert is literally built before our eyes: One by one, the other members of Talking Heads (bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, and assorted background singers and percussionists) come on-stage and join the concert, making each succeeding song a little deeper and more musically involved. We watch as stagehands push the equipment into place; there is no particular irony or self-consciousness. We are simply watching the step-by-step creation of a performance.
And this is where the film's impact comes from. "Stop Making Sense" is a powerful musical experience because the filmmakers have such utter confidence in the material that there is no need to dress it up. No backstage shots or silly, pointless interviews to satisfy the star's ego--just a concert from beginning to end with no false cinematic interruptions to jar the viewer from the experience of the music.
At their peak in the mid-1980s, Talking Heads was a unique musical creation, a cross between rock 'n' roll and performance art. They were accurately described by Jon Pareles in an article in "Vanity Fair" as "the thinking person's funk band." And, always at the center of any Talking Heads performance is Byrne, whose white suit and generic haircut set him apart from the spandex-clad, hair-sprayed musicians who characterized the '80s New Wave rock movement, and put him on the edge, wavering on a precipice of nerdishness.
But there's something about him that undercuts that appearance; his confidence, his enthusiasm, his complete control of the performance radiates from the stage, and this, more than anything, is what draws in the viewer. Whether he's running laps around the stage or singing in a ridiculously large suit that gives him the appearance of having a shrunken head (supposedly his exaggerated response to a Japanese fashion designer who told him that everything needs to be bigger on-stage), Byrne is a powerful entertainer, and it is his ability to project that in both musical and cinematic terms that makes "Stop Making Sense" so memorable.
©1999 James Kendrick
Overall Rating: (4)
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