Stop Making Sense (United States, 1984)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Upon its release in 1984, Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense was hailed by many critics as the "greatest concert film of all time." The picture, which captured a live concert performance given by the Talking Heads, used state-of-the-art direct-to-digital re-recording and non-intrusive camera positioning and movement to capture the kinetic energy of the experience and replicate it for nationwide theatrical viewing. Even the movie's few detractors grudgingly admitted that Stop Making Sense was technically flawless.

15 years have passed since Stop Making Sense hopped from theater-to-theater across America. Ronald Reagan has been succeeded in the White House by George Bush and Bill Clinton. AIDS, a "homosexual disease" in 1984, has grown into a worldwide epidemic. The Talking Heads, one of the most influential rock/funk groups of the late-'70s and early-'80s, endured an acrimonious split that was generally attributed to lead singer David Byrne's ballooning ego. Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who lensed about two dozen movies (including Blade Runner), died of Parkinson's Disease. And Director Jonathan Demme, whose best-known feature in 1984 was Melvin and Howard, has moved onto the A-list with films like Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Beloved. Yet the experience of watching Stop Making Sense peels back all those years. The music is not dated, even if the clothing worn by the band members (especially Tina Weymouth) is.

The facts about film's production can be laid out succinctly. Over the span of four concerts in four days (December 13-16, 1983 at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre), Demme and his crew attached themselves to the Talking Heads. The first concert was a dry run, with the performers getting used to having cameras capturing their every movement. Actual filming began on the second day, and the final cut of the film contains numbers from all three concerts. There are no behind-the-scenes pieces, interview segments, or anything else that would break the musical momentum. Stop Making Sense is 90 minutes of unadulterated music.

Demme's greatest ally is simplicity. He understood that the Talking Heads put on a strong enough show that there was no need for the cameras to artificially enliven things. Consequently, we are not subjected to the barrage of irritating quick cuts that have become the norm in the MTV era of concert footage. Instead, Demme and Cronenweth use extended shots, cutting only when another camera provides a better angle or a song has ended. This style of sustained takes allows the band's charisma and energy to shine through. They are not upstaged by too much movement or an ambitious editor. Even the audience is rarely shown. Until the final two numbers, Demme rigorously avoids crowd shots, and, even at the end, he shows restraint, incorporating scenes of the undulating audience primarily to emphasize the band's magnetism, not because it's a "requirement" of the genre.

Despite being a concert film, Stop Making Sense possesses the skeleton of dramatic structure. It takes six numbers for the entire band to assemble in front of the audience. For the first song, "Psycho Killer," David Byrne takes the barren stage alone, using a boom box and acoustic guitar as his only accompaniments. Tina Weymouth joins Byrne for "Heaven", followed by Chris Frantz for "Thank You For Sending Me An Angel", Jerry Harrison for "Found A Job", and the supporting band members for "Slippery People". Not until "Burning Down the House" are all the pieces in place. Also, during the early portions of the show, the technicians who are typically relegated to behind-the-scenes duty can be seen assembling the set. Stop Making Sense doesn't hide anything from us, and that's a significant aspect of its brilliance and innovation.

The Talking Heads capture their audience through music and shared energy, not through pyrotechnics and violent/sexual imagery. The set design is stark and the lighting simplistic. Sex might normally sell rock-and-roll, but not in this case. For the most part, the Talking Heads don't do love songs - they sing about simple things in life. There is no overt sexuality in the way they perform. In fact, David Byrne, with his herky-jerky movements that resemble a man undergoing electric shock treatment, is almost anti-sexual. He is also the consummate showman. At various times during the concert, he jogs in place, runs from one side of the stage to the other, appears ready to devour the microphone, bobs his head like a chicken, dances with a floor lamp, falls on his back and sings from a prone position, and seems to lose complete control of his body.

The concert is roughly divided into three segments. The first, which gradually builds as each band member comes on stage, reaches its climax with "Burning Down The House" and "Life During Wartime". The second segment begins with "Making Flippy Floppy" and ends with "Once In A Lifetime". The third part starts with the oddest of the movie's 16 songs - The Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love", a number that is out-of-synch with everything else (primarily because Byrne is not on stage). This is followed by "Girlfriend Is Better", which introduces the legendary Big Suit (an oversized suit worn by Byrne to make his head appear smaller - it does the trick), "Take Me To The River", and "Crosseyed And Painless".

The strength of Stop Making Sense is how well it has stood the test of time. It is currently receiving a theatrical re-release in honor of its 15th anniversary. With a newly remastered Dolby Digital soundtrack, it sounds more vibrant than ever - and this was the film that had San Francisco audiences literally dancing the theater aisles in 1984. (It is worth noting that many of the songs sound better in this film than they do on the albums for which they were initially recorded.) Stop Making Sense was the best concert film to date when it first came out, and nothing in the past decade-and-a-half has come close to toppling it from that position. It isn't even necessary to be a Talking Heads fan to enjoy the rhythm of the music and the antics of the band. (The first time I saw Stop Making Sense, I was unfamiliar with the band, and I still loved it.) This movie is pure fun and sheer exuberance transferred onto celluloid and perfectly re-created at the other end. Experiencing what Demme and the Talking Heads have crafted with this motion picture makes perfect sense.

Stop Making Sense (United States, 1984)

Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, with Ednah Holt, Lynn Mabry, Steven Scales, Alex Weir, Bernie Worrell
Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth
U.S. Distributor: Palm Pictures
Ranked #93 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 1984-10-09
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1