Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Palm Pictures DVD
Prominent in the expanse between music and film is Stop Making Sense, helmed by both director Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads. Its appeal is relative to one of two groups: those who esteem the Talking Heads concert and those who esteem the Jonathan Demme film; either function garners deserved praise. It is effectively directed, superbly performed, eminently watchable, and ultimately, as an umbrella to these terms, it is fun.
Foremost a concert, Stop Making Sense was shot during four subsequent shows during the band’s 1983 tour, though the resulting footage was edited to resemble a single appearance. This timing found the band at the height of their popularity, following “Speaking in Tongues” — their first album to sell over a million copies.
Demme has famously emerged on Hollywood’s A-List, though strewn within his prior efforts were no major critical successes; even his women-in-prison entry, Caged Heat, garnered little appreciation for its camp sensibility. However, the ingenuity of Stop Making Sense, dodging comparisons to his previous efforts, is in Demme’s minimalist direction. There is no behind-the-scenes footage of the band and shots of the crowd kept to a minimum. The perspective is not of an omniscient viewer (as it typically is in concert films) but fixed as a spectator’s.
The film contains various examples of innovation, even in respect to the film’s age. There is no narrative, per se, though the set “evolves” during the show. The opening song is on a barren, naked stage; the final one contains several lighting constructs, performers, and instruments. The visual component of the film is married inseparably to the music; each song has a distinct look and sound.
Opening the film, the camera precedes walking, gleaming white shoes, pans up and reveals front man David Byrne. “I’ve got a tape I want to play,” he announces, and a master shot reveals him alone in the middle of an empty stage. There is no backdrop, colored lighting, or any element to enhance the sight. It is established early on that the music will be the forefront of the film.
Calmly — and curiously — interrupting the second number, stagehands roll a drum set behind the performers. Appropriately, the following song, “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel,” finds drummer Chris Frantz on the filling stage. In stride, the next song brings more performers to the spotlight.
Commencing the final half of the film is “Making Flippy Floppy.” The design is now complete. Now dressed, the stage resembles a dark rectangle that houses each member comfortably on one of two tiers; behind are three large projector screens which display slides of either ambiguous body parts or disassociated words.
Citing the details of the concert does little to ruin any surprise. The images do not occur in a revelatory fashion, nor do the details serve any tying purpose, other than their functional, aesthetic appeal.
The design is influenced by Kabuki theater, specifically stage hands — meant to be unseen — dressed in black (against a dark background) to create the illusion of invisibility. The seamless translation lends the concert a distinguished visual component, particularly because it magnifies and obsesses what are otherwise minute details: along with the aforementioned shoes, examples include unrelated words seen in groups and a lamp.
Punctuating the film’s service to odd juxtapositions is odd choreography — running in place, convulsant movement, and enigmatic hand gestures. David Byrne completes the final songs dressed in an exclusively-tailored and enlarged suit, fashioned successfully to make his head appear smaller. His threads ripple about his body in fluid, rhythmic waves. These images are, simply, neat.
It seems, finally, a disservice to compare Stop Making Sense to other concert films — or, for that matter, other concerts. There have been tours with a distinct visual component, closely attuned to the respective sound, though here the combination is so discretely unique (there are no laser lights, fabricated fog, or domineering logos) that the production is a success parallel to the music.
In result Stop Making Sense is largely humanistic. What is celebrated here is not a specific sound or band, but rather the response that music can potentially conjure. This emotion, of course, is subjective to the viewer, though Stop Making Sense is convincing that few bands have as much fun.
The film continually elicits the title of greatest rock movie ever made. Its subjective band professes no political affirmations and no turmoils. Much of popular music is geared towards stating an affirmation or opinion (either political or sexual, most frequently) and, as an offshoot, can alienate listeners. Though the Talking Heads are no strangers to this convention, Stop Making Sense is a rare gesture; it excises potentially distracting philosophy and celebrates, instead, the essence of music.
In response to the film, director Bernardo Bertoulucci (Last Tango in Paris) famously lauded it, citing its effortless ability to inspire audience interaction (Stop Making Sense engaged several audiences to dance in its initial release). Even at its least effective, the film encourages one’s foot to tap unknowingly for eighty-eight minutes.