Stop Making Sense June 1, 2016
Stop Making Sense is an enthralling experience. It fuses the power of cinema and the power of music with bombastic symbiosis; it doesn’t so much feel like a filmed concert as it does a symphony of pleasure. It puts its focus onto the Talking Heads, a seminal New Wave group of the Roxy Music, David Bowie brand; most know them from such decade defining hits as “Burning Down the House” and “Once in a Lifetime.” The film gives opportunity to see daring artists at their prime, to tap our toes and sing our hearts out along with them. We do more than sit passively; our seats struggle to contain us.
Fronted by magnetic eccentric David Byrne, the concert we are transported to in Stop Making Sense is not a single concert but three, three concerts filmed in 1983 and stitched together in the name of musical perfection. The results are incredible. The energy, musicianship, and production on display is invigorating. Not a minute of its 88 are wasted.
The concert itself builds like a movie — it seems destined for the celluloid. It begins with Byrne walking out onto an empty stage, a stereo in one hand and a guitar in the other. No spotlight frames him. He looks like an amateur at an open mic night at a small town theatre, there to sing for his life. Following is an acoustic, passionate rendition of “Psycho Killer,” its impact intact despite the lack of extraneous instruments. Byrne is more than just your typical frontman. He’s a superstar, a showman.
But the film is not just Byrne’s time to shine. With each succeeding song, he is additionally joined by the members of his band, the sounds in place layering until they reach the levels of a gut-punching rock concert. Stage production grows increasingly complex with each song. Vivacity seems eternal. Everyone on display is having the time of their lives.
As in the tradition of all good concerts, one doesn’t have to be a fan of the Talking Heads to feel their hearts banging in their chests with excitement. Byrne and his fellow musicians are masters who also happen to love their job, and their enthusiasm, combined with Stop Making Sense’s visual and aural colors, makes for a rockumentary that manages, against all odds, to come alive. Unlike The Last Waltz (1978), a similarly minded music doc of immense acclaim, there’s never an atmosphere of staginess — The Last Waltz, in spite of its musical triumphs, is never intoxicating because we’re distinctly aware that its subjects don’t want to be there. The direction, by Martin Scorsese, is flat, predictable.
But Stop Making Sense is characterized by spirited verve, its central Talking Heads boundlessly kinetic, its director, Jonathan Demme, capturing their zest with vivid camerawork that makes us feel like a band member, an audience member, ourselves. Byrne’s vehemence is overwhelming. Notable, too, are Tina Weymouth’s slinky bass supplementations, and the presences of backup singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt, who bring warm R&B textures to the setlist. I especially liked the performances of “Burning Down the House” and “Crosseyed and Painless,” adrenaline infused tunes made better by the ebullient musicians behind them. Byrne, of course, is a force of nature.
After viewing Stop Making Sense, I suspect you might want to go out and purchase its live album of the same name, regardless of where your musical taste stands. Represented in the film is artistic excellence, and wanting to relive its brilliance is expected. Here is one of the finest concert films ever made. A