The 40th anniversary return of the monarch of rock concert films, Stop Making Sense, couldn’t be more welcome.
I’ve seen the Talking Heads concert film time and again over the years, from the first run, to the15th anniversary screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and late at night in chunks on YouTube.
I saw it once seven years ago, in the desert in Black Rock City on a TV screen balanced on an aluminum ladder. Nobody wants to hear what you got up to on the Playa, but that was as emotional an experience as I’ve had as a film watcher. I felt like a barker. I wanted to haul in passersby to join us on the dust-blasted second-hand sofas. “Come see this wonderful movie, good people!”
If that seems fulsome, apologies, because I’m still struck by the intelligent way Stop Making Sense tells its story of a jittery nerd finding communion. We see the process as described by Funkadelic’s George Clinton: “Free your mind and your ass will follow.”
The thin, anxious lead vocalist David Byrne wobbles in carrying a boombox to accompany him as he plays “Psycho Killer” on acoustic guitar. The song is haywire nerved, yet remote, like someone’s dissertation on a grindhouse movie. Byrne is joined by the appealingly sunny (and pregnant) bass player Tina Weymouth for the Kurt Weill-like song “Heaven.” The song gives blessed assurance that the afterlife will be like a bar that never changes, from the jukebox to the good company.
The rest of the band emerges: Jerry Harrison on chattering guitar and Tina’s spouse, the drummer Chris Frantz. Then enters keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and finally, as a scrim descends, vocalists Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt sprint onto the stage like a pair of antelope. Strange shadows make Zorro masks for these singers, on the overpowering “What a Day That Was.”
Loosened up by call and response music, Byrne sheds his too-tight skin, shimmying in an XXXXL suit, for “Girlfriend is Better,” the song that gives this film its title. He sways with a giant lamp like Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding. Byrne poses as a military badass, croaking out “Swamp” while marching in place. We see Clark Kent losing his glasses and turning into Superman.
The band is named for a standard TV shot: rigid full-face forward, head and shoulders in the frame. Given that name, it’s a surprise to see how superbly kinetic the film is.
It persistently cuts from something good to something better. Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth supervised a team of black–clad camerapeople, meant to be as invisible as the puppeteers in a Noh play. The result is one supershow woven out of three separate nights at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood.
The highest point is the band performing “Slippery People,” a song for 1983 and today. Lyrically circumspect though it is, it’s clearly about the lethal American malady of flim-flam men posing as the godly. Thus, it’s aged as well as Talking Heads’ hit “Life During Wartime,” an imagination of urban guerillas to come. It’s a prophecy that must never come true, and yet likely will.
If Stop Making Sense has survived in such great shape, the key reason is the direction by Jonathan Demme. Like Jean Renoir, he was a master of democratic cinema, of giving every character their time, their place and their word.
The lonely and the depressed are called to see Stop Making Sense. This film heals.
In theaters now