Stop Making Sense

Stop Making Sense ★★★★★

I first saw Stop Making Sense 8 years ago and since then I don’t think a single month has gone by where I have not consumed Stop Making Sense. I don’t mean I watch the whole film every month (I’ve seen it all the way through maybe 6 times), but almost certainly at some point I will watch a clip of one of the songs, listen to the soundtrack as background music, or just look up stills for comfort. The strange thing is, I’m not really a big music person. I mostly listen to podcasts or watch films. Yet I come back to this concert movie over and over. I treasure it so deeply. And now I realize why. This is a film that is entirely about the joy of human creativity.

The first brilliant thing you notice about the film (besides the great staging choices) is that there is no audience cutaways, at least not for a very long time. It’s just you and the band and you begin to remember how cheap audience cutaways are, deploying the Kuleshov effect to such a degree that you can’t help but think “this band must be crushing it” because I’m being shown so. No the Talking Heads have to earn your respect here and even if they don’t musically (quite aside, the music slaps beyond measure) they do athletically. So when the audience does come in dancing on the final number you feel like it’s been well earned.

This is a sweaty show in the literal since. There’s an incredible moment where after they give maybe one of the most incredibly passionate performances of the song “Burning Down the House”. It’s electric as every band member is banging down on their instruments with fury. By the end David Byrne’s shirt is so soaked on the Blu-Ray you can see it’s practically see-thru. And then, these crazy bastards, they start fake jogging. For five minutes the band and especially Byrne run around the entire stage like goddamn maniacs after already clearly being worn out. It’s just so infectious you could scream.

And then you realize, holy shit is this the best directed live thing I’ve ever seen? Famously Jonathan Demme wanted to shoot the concert without an audience in order to get perfect shots but the band refused. The result is not just an engaged band but a frantic and wild Demme, who pushes his crew to get the most incredible shots imaginable in the limited time. Each song has a distinct feel and rhythm. “Heaven” is the only time cross-dissolves are employed, giving it a more ethereal look. “Swamp” has gorgeous deep reds and creepy close-ups of a manic eyed Byrne that would evoke Hannibal Lecter 10 years later. And the most iconic performance “Girlfriend is Better” of course is playful and silly as Byrne clowns around in that fantastic big suit.

“What a Day That Was” in particular is stunning. While the audience sees these beautiful Fred Astaire style shadow plays, we see the surreal intimacy of uplighting on the band members, strange shadows filling their faces and each member alone in a void. It’s those close-ups that make it so electrifying and defined SMS as the new cool in concert docs. The greats before like The Last Waltz and Gimme Shelter were incredible documents of incredible moments. Yes this is a great show but it was meant for cinema. The audience here is background and ambience and moral boosting for the intimacy of the camera.

All of this comes to fruition in what I think is maybe one of the greatest moments in cinema, the performance of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)". It certainly helps that I think the song is one of the most beautiful testaments to love ever written. But in performance the staging is one of the most simple. The band is mostly in the foreground as images of simple domesticity are projected. The focal point is Byrne and a lamp. He sings his magnum opus song to this lamp and then dances with it. And like a fool, I cried so much. There’s something so magically about these quite moment of intimate musical performances. Think of Chaplin and the dinner rolls. It’s so simple and small it fails in theater, but in cinema that intimacy of the camera is phenomenal. The way Byrne moves and sways with the lamp it just, it just gets me every time. It's pure cinema in a way no other concert doc has ever managed to be.

This film fills me with a joy that only the most humanist films can. And I think SMS is pure humanity, flawed and precious and striving for better. And the film is deeply flawed to be clear. I don’t think all the songs are great as songs. The editing of three different nights causes all kinds of sync errors. But there’s a deep joy in the flaws to. There’s this incredible shot in “Burning Down the House” where there’s a tight close-up of Byrne and then he just leaves frame. There’s several seconds of basically black as the camera frantically loses him. It finally finds him again but the shot is so tight and his gyrating movements are so wild the camera can barely keep up. Any technical editor would cut away from the shot right before we lose Byrne because in all honesty it’s a bad shot afterwards. But…it works. Demme holding on it comes at a great valley in the song before it peaks again and the rhythm it creates is flawless. Flawed flawlessness is this film’s M.O.

I just adore it so much. It’s easily in my 5 desert island films. It’s no question in my 10 Sight & Sound films. It’s magical and perfect and so incredibly personal to me and I know I’m not alone. It’s just this perfect little thing that feels it is the best version of it that could ever exist. It’s like the Talking Heads aren’t even a band, more a magic group that came together to make this one thing and never existed again. It’s pure human expression on a grand but intimate scale. Every moment feels perfectly timed to induce pleasure in your brain. It’s wild abandon and it’s human creativity and it’s cinema and I treasure it beyond words. Well beyond a thousand words at least.

> And you're standing here beside me
> I love the passing of time
> Never for money, always for love
> Cover up and say goodnight, say goodnight

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