"Stop Making Sense"

Fifteen years later, the delightful Talking Heads concert pic is still the kind of miracle movie that comes about once in a lifetime.

Published September 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads concert film, "Stop Making Sense," is one of those miracle movies, a picture that seems to have come together by laws unto itself. It doesn't seem "made." It merely exists, like some inexplicable and wonderful quirk of nature: a redwood, a toad with fabulous markings or something that just mysteriously appeared on a lily pad one day.

And yet, it's all about process. The trappings of putting on a show -- everything from lights to stagehands to slide projectors -- are in full view at one time or another. The performers find their way onto the stage in layers, song by song, each one filling in his or her particular space so perfectly that you wonder why you hadn't thought of it as empty. "Stop Making Sense" is so beautifully choreographed that in some ways it's more like theater than a rock show. There's no rock 'n' roll sloppiness, no seat-of-the-pants spontaneity. Instead, it's all about stealth inventiveness.

"Stop Making Sense" looks just as fresh as it did in 1984. (All-new 35 mm prints, with a digitally remixed and remastered soundtrack, open at theaters this fall in honor of the movie's 15th anniversary.) The movie was filmed over the course of three nights in December 1983, at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. And although Demme and his crew had mapped out every step beforehand -- you could see the movie a dozen times and still not quite fathom the extraordinary amount of planning and forethought that must have gone into it -- the picture comes off as infinitely more organic than mechanical. "We were all sort of madly in love with this band and their music," Demme has said. "Nobody was there doing a job -- everybody was there because of the excitement of being part of it, truly."

There's just no explaining the sense of wonder that creeps into nearly every minute of "Stop Making Sense." Whether you've seen three rock shows over the course of a lifetime or 3,000, you can almost fool yourself into thinking that this might be your first. The picture's opening image is the neck of David Byrne's acoustic guitar seen as a shadow in a shaft of light -- we're seeing just a suggestion, an outline, of one of the primary tools of rock 'n' roll. From that point on, "Stop Making Sense" is so straightforward, so Spartan in its conception, that you'd hardly expect it to swing, and yet it does. Although it's a performance by consummate pros (the three founding members of Talking Heads, singer and guitarist Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Franz, had been performing together for nearly 10 years; guitarist Jerry Harrison had joined in 1977), there's still something innocently naked about it. The delight of the performers -- even the often-inscrutable Byrne -- informs every frame. And the additional players Talking Heads enlisted for the tour -- percussionist Steve Scales, guitarist Alex Weir, keyboardist Bernie Worrell and backing vocalists Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry -- not only enrich the band's sound but also turn the show into a kind of minimalist pageant.

The band as a whole is simply a joy to watch through Demme's lens. The show -- everything from the slides we see during "Making Flippy Floppy" (on three screens, each one featuring a single word or phrase like "Doll face," "Public Library" or "Deli") to the famous "big suit" -- was conceived by Byrne, and it has his eccentric little markings all over it.

But although Demme's vision is beautifully transparent here, "Stop Making Sense" is very much his film. Before the preachy, ill-shapen "Philadelphia" (1991), in movies like "Something Wild" (1986) and "Melvin and Howard" (1980), Demme showed a gift for opening us up, without condescension, to the deep strangeness of Middle America, the uncommonness of people who on the surface may look very ordinary. In "Stop Making Sense," he acclimates us, slowly, to the deep strangeness of David Byrne, without turning him cuddly (the unblinking intensity of his "Psycho Killer" still makes me a little queasy) or making him seem easily explainable. Byrne isn't Middle America with weirdness inside. He's weirdness with Middle America inside -- an inversion that Demme's camera seems perfectly comfortable with. It shows us Byrne as a nervous, gangly, indisputably white boy who's mastered the trick of keeping his eyelids peeled back for long periods of time. It also shows us a guy who loves good-old-fashioned religious music and likes to dance. Can we be certain he ever did go to art school?

Every performer in "Stop Making Sense" is a crucial part of the whole: Franz, the eternally good-humored teddy-bear frat boy behind the drum kit, who helped to usher in some of the most outlandish music of his generation; Weymouth, a self-possessed pixie with an unerring sense of time, her eye on the ball every nanosecond; Mabry and Holt, with their silky voices, who taunt Byrne mercilessly and good-naturedly during "Slippery People" by engaging him in a modified shimmy that underscores his eternal and unstoppable whiteness.

There's so much to look at in "Stop Making Sense" that it really isn't a bad idea to see it twice: once to try to take in the marvelous spectacle of the whole, and once just for Byrne. When he first steps onto the stage, dressed in a slouchy linen suit and tennis shoes, and flicks on the boom box that carries the rhythm track for "Psycho Killer," he changes the rules of life as we know it. It's a life where rhythm is king, and where ominous premonitions like those in "Life During Wartime" ("Burned all my notebooks/What good are notebooks?/They won't help me survive") give way effortlessly to the gentle, wondrous contentment of " Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)." Through all of it, Byrne is the one you find yourself staring at, tapping his foot restlessly during "Psycho Killer" at the start of the show and later, letting his bones go all noodly inside his giant suit. (A miracle of engineering inspired by Kabuki costumes, the suit takes a few extra fractions of a second to follow his movements, and the disjunction is pleasingly off-pitch.)

During "Psycho Killer," when he stumbles and staggers against the synthesizer "gun shots" on his tape loop, he's like Jean Paul Belmondo in the final minutes of "Breathless," a hero succumbing, surprised, to violence that he'd thought he was prepared for. (But unlike Belmondo, he doesn't fall: As a psycho killer, he's indestructible.) Later, though, he's a different man entirely, transformed by warm, comfortable love and the pleasures of shared domestic life in "Naive Melody." A single floor lamp, sturdy and nondescript, the kind found in nearly every suburban living room of the 1950s and '60s, bathes the stage in understated light. Byrne begins to dance with it, seemingly impulsively. It's a stripped-down, austere version of that wonderful sequence where Fred Astaire dances with a coat rack. Byrne twirls his partner, parries with it, toys with the idea of sending it off, but reels it back in at the last possible second. At one point he faces it squarely, mesmerized as he stares directly at the glowing bulb.

And there you have one of the essential secrets of "Stop Making Sense." We've become transfixed by a man entranced -- by a light bulb. The tools you need for rock 'n' roll spectacle are simpler than you'd ever imagined -- you can even find them in your own house. And that's about as much sleight-of-hand as you'll get in "Stop Making Sense." There are no illusions here. Perhaps only because with so much magic, there's just no room for it.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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