Format: Classic Cinemas Charlestowne 18
A lot of high schools have a tradition, looked down on by faculty, of Senior Ditch Day. All/most of the seniors essentially blow off school for a day, typically a Friday, to get a three-day weekend. For where I grew up, the tradition for many was to spend a day at the Indiana Dunes, about a 2-hour drive from home. My friends and I, though, went to downtown Chicago and saw Stop Making Sense at the Music Box Theater.
Stop Making Sense is a concert film, and it’s nothing more than a concert film. It doesn’t need to be anything more than that, though, because this is a Talking Heads concert, and David Byrne’s style (and less so the rest of the group) is as much about the visuals as it is about the music. It’s about the full experience, something that shouldn’t be too surprising coming from a musical group where 75% of the core members met at art school.
Compiled from a series of performances from the Speaking in Tongues tour and filmed by eventual Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme, the film starts out as plainly as possible. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne walks out onto a barren stage with no backdrops carrying an acoustic guitar and a portable cassette player. He sets the player down, hits play, and a drum track starts. Byrne plays underground Heads classic “Psycho Killer” by himself. When the song ends, bassist Tina Weymouth emerges from the wings, and the duo plays “Heaven”. Add drummer Chris Frantz, and we get “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel.” Add fourth core member Jerry Harrison, and we get “Found a Job.”
While band members are coming out, the crew is setting up the stage behind them, wheeling out platforms and erecting screens, setting up pedals, and more. After the four main members are on stage, the additional musicians—Bernie Worrell, Steve Scales, Alex Weir, Lynne Mabry, and Ednah Holt—emerge and join in until the full set of nine people are on stage and the band plays their massive hit “Burning Down the House.”
The genius of Stop Making Sense is that we don’t waste time with behind the scenes interviews or talking to the fans. All we need is the show going on in front of us, because it’s very much a part of Byrne’s oeuvre that the songs should be experienced visually and physically as well as auditorily. So when “Life During Wartime” plays, the five people at the front of the stage spend much of the song running in place in perfect symmetry—particularly impressive for Weymouth and Weir, who are wielding a bass and guitar respectively. For “This Must Be the Place,” Byrne dances with a floor lamp. And then, of course, there’s the big suit.
Byrne takes a break near the end of the film and leaves the stage. The eight remaining members, comprising the guts of the Tom Tom Club, play “Genius of Love,” and then Byrne returns, clad in an oversized business suit in which he swims on stage through “Girlfriend is Better” and “Take Me to the River.”
Here's the thing—you either appreciate what Talking Heads were and what they did (and are right about that), or you don’t. Consequently, you either have already seen Stop Making Sense and appreciate the genius behind it, or it passes by you.
Are there songs I would have loved to have seen performed? Absolutely. The original VHS release contains versions of “Cities” and “I Zimbra” off the Fear of Music album, and I contend that the first side of Remain in Light—“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” “Crosseyed and Painless,” and “The Great Curve” is the greatest album side up to the creation of the compact disc, and we only get the middle song. I’d have loved to have all three in a row, because it doesn’t get better than that. But it’s okay, because a good concert should always leave you wanting more.
If you don’t like Talking Heads, there’s nothing here for you. If you do, this is the best way to experience them at the height of their power. And boy damn howdy if it isn't fantastic on a big screen!
Why to watch Stop Making Sense: The perfect concert film.
Why not to watch: If you don’t like Talking Heads, there’s nothing here for you.