Stop Making Sense

Stop Making Sense ★★★★★

"And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself
My God! What have I done?"

That's real Big Suit Energy right there.

The Jonathan Demme-directed Stop Making Sense, featuring the incomparable Talking Heads and frontman David Byrne, is understood as one of the seminal concert films in cinema history. Like the legendary band's oeuvre, it's unpredictable and unique, and filled with vision and meaning which were light years beyond what any mainstream acts were making in the 1980s. The eclectic rock band burns down the house in one of the greatest concert documentaries of all time.

Edited and recorded with intelligence and state-of-the-art equipment of the era, Demme films the group at four separate live shows at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles in December 1983, blended together seamlessly. Beginning with Byrne on solo acoustic guitar and vocals and playing with a drum loop to "Psycho Killer," track by track an additional member comes on stage for a new song: Tina Weymouth on bass and keyboard, Chris Frantz on drums, Jerry Harrison on guitar, back up singers and equipment and a half-dozen other musicians of electronic and percussive instruments. The Talking Heads move from lesser-known gems -- "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," "Found a Job" -- to smash hits with the full complement -- "Once in a Lifetime," "Burning Down the House," "Life During Wartime." And through it all, Byrne's infectious spirit and energy, and the most iconic business suit in music history, envelop the audience into a rapturous din of elation.

As opposed to many other concert films, Stop Making Sense feels so simple and authentic. No backstage drivel, no band history, no "we do this for the fans!" lip service. Just pure rock 'n roll with the artsy edge of the Hall of Fame band. Demme did his best not to get in the way, literally or figuratively, of the group, filming different elements on different days so they knew where to expect the director each performance.

So much of the concert show is far different from what we expect of filmed performances and live music videos. Almost no shots of rollicking fans, or close-ups on the guitar soloist's fingers, or banter with the crowd, or pyrotechnics galore. Instead there are slow camera zooms to Byrne, abrupt cuts between songs, dynamic lighting and color to exaggerate the cinematography. (The lighting used to enhance the stark black and white contrast during "What a Day That Was" is haunting and perfect.)

Famously, Demme also recorded the shows with top-notch technology, with the use of 24-track digital sound recording resulting in a brilliant sound design that ushered in a new age of audio. The film is notably the first ever recorded entirely in digital, and it's crisp and impeccably clear. Turn up the volume and dance in the aisles.

In a great interview with Rolling Stone drummer Chris Frantz (still making music today in the Tom Tom Club with wife Tina Weymouth) talked about the iconic wardrobe, and Byrne's instantly legendary outfit:

David said, “I want everybody to wear neutral colors because I don’t want anybody to stand out too much.” And then he comes out in the biggest white suit you’ve ever seen in your life [laughs]...We did know he was going to do it, but we didn’t know it was going to look like until the suit was actually made. It was amazing. It was pretty funny….We had been in Japan just prior to the tour, and David always said it was based on Japanese Noh theatre costumes where the main characters wear these great big square outfits, similar to his suit except theirs would be kimono style.

With the young director Demme preferring a hands-off approach to filming the funky rock group, and the Talking Heads firing on all cylinders at the peak of their powers, Stop Making Sense is about as close to a perfect concert film that can possibly be made. It's truly a once in a lifetime.

Added to Jonathan Demme ranked.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Documentary Films.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Films from Every Year I've Seen Them.

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