I first watched Stop Making Sense a little over ten years ago. It was my first semester of college, and, as these things go, Talking Heads had become part of the unofficial syllabus of late dorm room nights spent taking clumsy bong hits and passing the aux cord. Though I’d never admit it at the time, I didn’t really get their music. After all, there’s weird, and then there’s Talking Heads Weird, all art school conceits and deconstructed melodies; meanwhile, I was still wrapping my head around Radiohead (whose name, by the way, is taken from a Talking Heads song). My preceding knowledge of David Byrne and co. was limited to the pop cultural osmosis of car commercials and supermarket aisles, a passive familiarity with hits like “Burning Down the House” that trumped my ability to appreciate or otherwise distinguish them from the likes of, say, Yazoo.
Still, when everyone convened at our campus film center to attend the annual screening of Stop Making Sense, I went too—partially because I wanted to understand this band that so many of my peers seemed to love, but mostly because I didn’t want my cool new friends to think I was a dweeb.
An hour later, I was out of my seat and dancing in front of the screen; we all were. If I didn’t know the words, that was beside the point; it was as exhilarating as any live concert I’d been to. A few days later, I’d find a copy of the soundtrack at a thrift store for a dollar. It was the first vinyl I’d ever bought. A decade later, now I’m the one putting those songs on at parties.
In the wake of director Jonathan Demme’s death this week, and almost 33 years to the day of the film’s release, the thrill and immediacy of Stop Making Senseremains its singular legacy.
Concert films are, for the most part, for nerds—a sleek memento of a great night, repackaged nostalgia to be occasionally relived by die-hards and those who were there. Generally speaking, they don’t translate all that well to the pals you’ve forced onto your couch to watch with you, and, as our camera phones grow ever sharper, they’ve only become more niche.
But Stop Making Sense is not that kind of concert film, a point underscored by the film’s winking iconic centerpiece of Byrne’s giant suit. (“Everything is bigger on stage,” he quipped.) It is instead the opposite—an introduction and access point to a band whose recordings, often intentionally, can veer into abstraction.
The film’s success has less to do with any kind of objective greatness, or even with Talking Heads, really, than the particular moment at which it arrived in the evolution of music documentaries and pop concert production.The second Byrne sets down that boombox and kicks off the tape loop, the film breaks from the observational, straightforward tradition of predecessors like The Band’s The Last Waltz. At the same time, it was the first to spotlight the kind of comprehensive artistry and showmanship that now comes standard with any concert tour worth its salt.
Of course, Stop Making Sense, with its living room furniture and spastic choreography, looks pretty humble in comparison to our Kendricks and Gagas; you won’t find anything by way of pyrotechnics or LEDs, but what it did offer was unprecedented narrative and spectacle (it’s also the first concert film made entirely with digital audio technique): It brought theater to pop.
“The show was like seeing a movie just waiting to be filmed,” Byrne woud say in an interview with Demme years later. It’s true. As the music and production grow increasingly elaborate, it also offers a kind of meta examination of what it means to put on a show, with ever more elements are added, contorted, deconstructed, and expanded with each new song. That’s why what it accomplishes as a concert film is greater than the sum of its parts.
Demme was, first and foremost, a Talking Heads fan. They were his favorite band, and he approached them as such after a gig at the Hollywood Bowl. The feeling was mutual; Byrne loved Melvin and Howard, and they teamed up to capture the band’s sold-out four-night run at LA’s Pantages Theater, arriving at the crest of Talking Heads’s 1983 breakthrough Speaking in Tongues.
It’s because of Demme’s enchanted, hungry perspective as a fan himself that the film works so well. The feeling is one of being spectacularly present, an extension of what’s happening on screen, as we look on from the crowd, rather than the gloating stadium pans and audience reaction shots that are often default in rock films; it’s not “remember when you were there,” it’s “you are here.” Except here, we’re getting an even closer view than the crowd, and this is what makes the film perhaps more effective than the concert itself.
Demme doesn’t force his joy on the viewer; he instead invites you to participate, more like an excited friend who invited you to the show, leaning in to point out the myriad little moments and details unfolding amidst the chemistry on stage.
“Look at how wonderful they are,” he seems to say during “Life During Wartime,” as the camera zooms in on backing vocalists Lynn Marby and Ednah Holt’s expressions as they dance with each other. Or, “Watch Frantz shout and smash the drums like an overgrown eight-year-old,” he notes, peering around the silhouette of a bandmate on “Slippery People.” There’s a million others—Tina’s cheeky little expressions, or the “girls can do it too” swagger of band-within-a-band Tom Tom Club’s set. And so the show unfolds, spotlighting a parade of musicians (RIP Bernie Worrell) and elements added with each song until we take a step back see what each brings to the show at large. You have never seen anyone having as much fun as Talking Heads and their all-star backing band has during this show.
As with Demme’s marquee work like Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, the magic of the director’s eye is that it’s equally unobtrusive and unflinching. Rarely do his works make you notice or feel like you’re watching a film, and yet that artistry is intrinsically part of what makes it so effective. Neither run-and-gun or high-concept Scorsese camerawork could do what Demme does with Stop Making Sense.
Years later, when he would join forces with Justin Timberlake to make the singer’s Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids concert film, JT would cite Stop Making Sense as inspiration. And, as great as the former was, or other music docs Demme made for those like Neil Young, none managed to match the punch and urgency of Stop Making Sense, in part because they would always be defined by it.
“I often find myself feeling that filming music is somehow the purest form of filmmaking,” Demme said in that same interview with Byrne. “This crazed collision of sound and images, the intense collaboration, these incredibly cinematic performances. And for the nights you’re filming, a non-player like me gets to feel somehow part of the band.”
That’s the great gift of Jonathan Demme and Stop Making Sense—we all feel like we’re part of it, sharing the same space for a minute or two.