Stop Making Sense is a digitally remixed, freshly struck print of director Jonathan’s Demme’s 1984 movie of the rock quartet Talking Heads in concert. Shot over three nights at the end of the group’s ’84 tour, the footage was then edited into a very tight 88 minutes, its 16 songs describing an arc as explicit as that of any fictional feature film.
Two separate strategies are at work here, both of them simple and complementary. Heads lead singer and songwriter David Byrne had devised a show which started small and built to a level of intensity which was then, with the exception of a couple of well-placed respites, maintained to the final climax. The concert begins with Byrne playing acoustic guitar, accompanied by a stark, prerecorded rhythm track, doing a rendition of "Psycho Killer" as roadies move risers and other equipment into place. During the next four numbers, the band slowly swells to its basic four plus two backup singers, extra guitar, keyboard and percussion until a full contingent of nine are on stage to blast out "Burning Down the House."
Meanwhile, Demme’s approach could be described as anti-MTV: Rather than edit in time to the music or try to hype the proceedings with amphetamine montages, he uses long, often mobile takes centering around Byrne, with an occasional glance at another band member at work – and even fewer occasional glances at the audience. Byrne rewards the camera’s attention. He’s an extraordinarily kinetic and bizarre performer; looking like a life-sized marionette who’s broken free of his strings, he jerks and flays about with deceptively geeky precision.
The music, with the exception of a cutesy number by bassist Tina Weymouth’s spin-off concept the Tom Tom Club, dates remarkably well, the best songs combining a timely anomie with a never quite duplicated rock-funk mix. Like the film’s title, the music posits an appealing response to the mounting chaos of modernity: Lean into it and have a good time.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].