Stop Making Sense

Stop Making Sense ★★★★½

"Stop Making Sense" is widely regarded as the best concert film ever made. But...why?

I first watched this film, way back in the days of VHS, because I liked the Talking Heads. I liked their tunes," liked them enough that I was interested in this film. I liked it then, though I thought its biggest problem was that it didn't feature all of their greatest songs ("And she was" is absent, so is "Nothing but Flowers"...but those songs probably hadn't been written or performed at the time of this concert so their exclusion is understandable, I probably even understood that back then but I was just disappointed). It did, however, introduce me to "Slippery People", which has become one of my favorite of their songs.

I still kind of think "Slippery People" is my favorite part of the film. But as for why this is considered the greatest concert film of all time, I can now speak to that a lot more coherently. I like to think I've become a more astute cinephile since my first viewing of "Stop Making Sense". And, yes, a huge component of why this simple concert film is so gripping is that it's just dripping with tremendous visual style. The Talking Heads constructed a visually stunning concert experience, that's a crucial element of why the film is so engrossing and haunting. The visuals are remarkable, and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth places the cameras in all the right places to capture these visuals as arrestingly as possible. The cinematography is, in fact, absolutely flawless. You could reasonably expect such a thing from the cinematographer responsible for "Blade Runner", but it's still spellbinding. Little decisions, like close-ups and an emphasis on shadow and the decision not to show the audience until close to the end, make all the difference here.

This concert has more structure than most such shows as well, which is why it probably lends itself to a cinematic format better than most. It starts with David Byrne playing guitar and accompanied by a boombox on a bare stage, which in and of itself is a haunting image (and combines perfectly with the haunting song "Psycho Killer"). With each song, another performer and another visual component is introduced until, a few songs in, everyone is onstage and seemingly having the time of their lives. There's an exuberance and pure joy on display that is infectious. I always found the Talking Heads's music rather chilly and mechanical-sounding (like much New Wave) though I've always thought it was unique within that genre and, frankly, within the whole world of music itself. Simply put: no one sounds like the Talking Heads. They are totally unlike any other band. They don't sound like anyone else and, as this movie proves, their stage show doesn't look like anyone else's either. But the experience of watching them perform makes me wonder how I ever found them chilly or mechanical. In performance they feel like a gospel act. The spirit has seized them and they seem animated by something bigger than themselves. It's extraordinary.

Byrne is at the center of it, perhaps the mastermind of the whole experience, and he is a magnetic figure. His dancing, like his music, is thoroughly unlike anyone else's. There are times when he looks as though he's having a seizure. (My kids occasionally asked what was wrong with him, but they loved this film too.) There is one song where he just starts doing laps. A wise man, one would think, wouldn't do such things. A different performer might conserve their energy for the long haul. Byrne has no such concerns. It looks as though he's simply too deeply into the music, the vibe, the sheer joy of performing these songs to care. It's an amazing performance, and it just gets more engrossing as the concert progresses. There is one song where he isn't onstage and the song is fine, but one definitely feels his absence. There just isn't quite as much sheer joy onstage at that moment (but I can understand why, he's changing into the Big Suit, which is pretty awesome). But "Stop Making Sense", in its structure, emphasizes the importance of every musician and of the collaborative process itself. Byrne by himself is fine, but with everyone else there it's so much better.

"Stop Making Sense" is a visually astounding experience, a magical experience for the ears (these songs rule, and the visuals conjured by Demme and Cronenweth and Byrne and everyone else involved perfectly complement them and provide emphasis to them) and a blast of pure joy. Is "Stop Making Sense" the greatest concert film of all time? I'm kind of thinking so. It's a vital film and I'm glad I revisted it. I can see myself giving it that extra half star the next time I watch it.

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