Monday, January 4, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #131 - Stop Making Sense (1984, dir. Jonathan Demme)

I assumed that anyone who had an interest would have seen this film by now, but I keep meeting people who haven’t seen it – fans of the Talking Heads even – so it felt necessary to write it up. If you’ve seen the film, you know about its irresistible energy, the joyous feel of the music (even when the band gets strange), the magnetic wonder of David Byrne’s performance. But maybe it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, or maybe you’ve never seen it. If so, this review is for you.

In late 1983, the Talking Heads were riding their most successful album to date – Speaking in Tongues – which charted higher than any of their previous albums and contained their first top ten hit with “Burning Down the House.” With these accomplishments under their collective belt they decided it was time to make a concert film to document the band in one of its most exciting incarnations. To take the directing reins they hired Jonathan Demme, who worked with Byrne and the group to design a film that, unlike most rock docs, almost never takes us out of the performance for interviews, audience shots, or extraneous images. They also spent a lot of the film’s budget (raised by the band) on recording the sound with then-new digital technology and the expenditure paid off handsomely – this hardly sounds live at all and it takes full advantage of the audio capabilities of both DVD and Blu-ray. The core of the group is of course the quartet – David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison (in that order, as we shall see) – but here they’re augmented by extra percussion (courtesy of Steve Scales) extra guitar (Alex Weir sometimes chugging rhythm, sometimes playing the Adrian Belew role, sometimes shredding in his own style), extra keyboards (P-Funk’s synth wizard Bernie Worrell), and extra vocal support (Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry singing backing and harmony vocals). And Demme (along with cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, famed for his work on Blade Runner) have a gift for staying out of the way of the band while still putting us right in their faces to capture the energy of the performances. Demme also made the wise decision in the editing process to favor long takes and hand held camera to keep you in the moment – against the grain of the current MTV era of rapid fire, quick cut video editing.

The film begins with a shot of the floor at the front of what we’ll soon find out is a barren stage. A pair of sneakers – belonging to David Byrne – walk into the frame. The camera follows then to a mic stand and a boombox is set down next to the mic. Byrne’s voice announces “I have something I want to play for you” and he presses play, starting a rhythm over which his voice and guitar start to play “Psycho Killer” as he sometimes stands at the mic, sometimes stumbles and dances goofily around the stage. When he’s done Tina Weymouth walks out on stage, bass in hand, and joins him for a duet on the great song “Heaven.” As the song nears its end, roadies roll out risers and a drum kit and then Chris Frantz comes out – in his blue polo shirt, the only one not dressed in the industrial, neutral colored outfits that the rest of the performers are – and bounds up behind his kit to fire up the early Heads song “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” as the trio that the band originally was. After the group had worked a while as trio, Jerry Harrison joined to make them a quartet and to signify it he’s out on stage next on guitar to join them for “Found A Job.” After they finish most of the rest of the band comes out, the curtain drops, blocking the open background for the first time and they kick into “Slippery People” from the then-new Speaking in Tongues album. Meanwhile Byrne gets goofy, dancing with the other singers, and everyone on stage feels the rhythm. For “Burning Down the House,” the last of the performers hit the stage and the full band kicks into high gear, with Byrne even running laps around the risers for the next tune. Though Byrne’s twitchy energy is often the focus, Demme wisely cuts away to give everyone featured time onscreen because they’re all clearly having a blast and the energy from all quarters is infectious. At the midpoint, Byrne yells into the mic “Thank you! Does anybody have any questions?” and there’s a quick fade to black. The film fades back up on a series of visual projections and the show is now in a higher gear too – adding in an additional visual component to augment the music. It hits a high during “What A Day That Was” (from Byrne’s excellent 1981 solo album The Catherine Wheel) where the band is lit from below by strong lights that cast giant moving shadows behind them. The focus is on Bernie Worrell later as they roll into “Once In A Lifetime” but Byrne’s eccentric movements (partially recreated from the video) again pull the focus up to the front line. As the film rolls out to a close, the energy remains high, going through a Tom Tom Club solo spot, Byrne wearing (and then slowly discarding) the film’s famous “Big Suit” during “Girlfriend Is Better,” an extended workout on their version of Al Green’s “Take Me To the River” and the closer, “Crosseyed and Painless,” which ends things on an energetic high before fading back down to the sounds of the boombox beats from “Psycho Killer” as the credits roll.

Writing about it can’t possibly do it justice. It’s a viscerally exciting audio-visual experience from beginning to end and if you haven’t seen it you owe it to yourself to witness what film critic Leonard Maltin (in one of the few times I agree with him) called “one of the greatest rock movies ever made” and critic Pauline Kael called “close to perfection.” They’re right - I can’t think of a better concert film that exists, rock or otherwise.

-Patrick Brown

No comments: