#633) Stop Making Sense (1984)

#633) Stop Making Sense (1984)

OR “And You May Tell Yourself, ‘This Is Not My Beautiful Blog!’”

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Written by Demme and Talking Heads

Class of 2021

The Plot: By 1984, Talking Heads had already made a name for themselves in the rock scene. With their effective blend of new wave, punk, art rock and world music, Talking Heads gave us such hits as “Psycho Killer”, “Burning Down the House” and “Once in a Lifetime”. To promote their 1983 album “Speaking in Tongues”, Talking Heads went on a U.S. tour, with their stop at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater being filmed by Jonathan Demme. The resulting film features all of their hits, as well as some impressively energetic performances from the band, plus an extra-large business suit that continues to linger in pop-culture.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “as inventive visually as it is sonically” and “the quintessential get-up-and-dance experience.” The “charismatic” David Byrne is highlighted, as is Demme’s direction.

But Does It Really?: If any movie can claim the title of best concert feature ever, it’s “Stop Making Sense”. In a sleek 88 minutes, Jonathan Demme captures Talking Heads at the height of their fame with top-notch renditions of all their best songs (of course it helps if you’re a fan of their music, which I am). “Stop Making Sense” might not be an essential American movie in the vein of your heavy hitters, but it continues to rock four decades later, and is iconic enough to deserve its spot on the NFR.

Shout Outs: Among the random words projected on the background slides is the phrase “Star Wars“. Also noteworthy are the film’s credits, designed by Pablo Ferro in the style of his “Dr. Strangelove” opening.

Everybody Influential New Wave/Rock Band Gets One: After an early stint as The Artistics, Rhode Island School of Design students David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth moved to New York, naming their new band Talking Heads after the TV term for a head and shoulder interview shot. From 1977 to 1980, Talking Heads had a meteoric rise with three popular albums and such hit singles as “Psycho Killer” and “Life During Wartime”. After a three year hiatus, Talking Heads returned in 1983 with the album “Speaking in Tongues”, and went on a promotional tour. While performing at L.A.’s Greek Theatre in August 1983, the group met filmmaker Jonathan Demme. Fresh off the disastrous production of “Swing Shift” and looking for a change of pace, Demme proposed filming the performance. Talking Heads raised the entire $1.2 million budget themselves, dipping into their respective life savings, which they would eventually get back in profits.

Title Track: The film’s original working title was “Electric Guitar”, but was eventually changed to “Stop Making Sense”; derived from the lyrics of “Girlfriend Is Better”, which is performed in the film. When asked by L.A. Weekly why he had picked that title, Jonathan Demme responded “That’s a good question.”

Seriously, Oscars?: Although “Stop Making Sense” missed out on an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, the National Society of Film Critics gave the film its documentary prize, as well as third place for its Best Film of the year. For the record: the Oscars gave Best Documentary to fellow NFR entry “The Times of Harvey Milk“.

Other notes 

  • Talking Heads performed at the Pantages Theater from December 13th-16th, 1983 specifically for this film. To be as unobtrusive as possible, Demme placed his cameras in different spots in the the theater every night; stage left one night, back of the house the next, etc. The bulk of the final film comes from the performance on the 15th.
  • The beginning of the concert has a bit of a narrative thread, with the first few songs on the setlist mirroring the band’s evolution. We start with David Byrne alone on stage performing “Psycho Killer” (the band’s first hit) on guitar accompanied by a boombox. This is a bit of historical revision on Byrne’s part, as Byrne was not the band’s sole founding member, nor did he write “Psycho Killer” by himself.
  • I was struck by how young David Byrne is in this. Byrne was 31 when they filmed “Stop Making Sense” and looks like a cross between Cillian Murphy and Daniel Day-Lewis.
  • Following “Psycho Killer”, Byrne is joined for each number by more band members: Tina Weymouth joins for “Heaven”, while “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” adds drummer Chris Frantz, who apparently didn’t get the “all grey clothing” memo with his bright teal polo. Subsequent numbers bring in guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison, percussionist Steve Scales, and backup singers Lynn Mabry & Ednah Holt. I was really hoping this pattern would continue throughout the whole movie, and by the end the stage would be filled with performers. But alas, the culmination comes with the night’s sixth number – “Burning Down the House” – in which we get the rest of the band (Guitarist Alex Weir and keyboardist Bernie Worrell) and a shit ton of percussion.
  • As often noted, part of what helps distinguish “Stop Making Sense” from other concert features is the focus on the actual performance. No behind the scenes interviews, no cutaways to the audience, just the performers on stage doing their show. It effectively captures the energy of a live performance, and subsequently helps the film age better than most other concert films. The other thing this movie has going for it is that everyone seems to be having a good time. The whole movie has a relentless energy about it (at one point Byrne runs laps around the stage), and you get caught up in the sheer joy of performing everyone has in this. Like all good movies, “Stop Making Sense” is as fun to watch the 100th time as it is the first.
  • I guess all that energy is really paying off because my god everyone is sweating buckets in this. Were the first few rows warned they were in the splash zone?
  • Around the halfway point you really start to see the art school influence on these guys. The backdrop becomes a series of slides with random words and phrases like “Dollface”, “Onions”, “Under the Bed”, “Pig” etc. I don’t know what it all means, but I’m sure someone does. On a related note, I’d like to claim the name “Digital Babies Dustballs” for my alt rock band.
  • “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” is one of my favorites, with this live performance highlighted by David dancing with a standing lamp. Eat your heart out, Fred Astaire. I was hoping the lamp would get some sort of shoutout in the credits. “Lamp courtesy of Al’s Lamp Emporium of Pasadena. Mention ‘Stop Making Sense’ and get 10% off your first purchase.”
  • Another favorite of mine (and everyone’s), “Once in a Lifetime” is captured here in almost entirely one take. This is the song where you really appreciate David Byrne’s incredible physicality as a performer. With his lanky figure and seemingly impossible dexterity, he’s like an over-caffeinated Ray Bolger.
  • Just want to point out that a good chunk of this movie’s playlist comes from “Speaking in Tongues”, making this one of the rare times in history that a band retained an audience while playing stuff from their new album.
  • “Genius of Love” is a bit of a detour courtesy of Tom Tom Club; a side band Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz created during their Talking Heads hiatus. I didn’t realize “Genius of Love” is that “I’m in Heaven” song that everyone samples. Tom Tom Club’s performance serves the double purpose of giving Tina and Chris a moment in the spotlight, while simultaneously giving David a chance to go backstage and change into his big suit. Fun Fact: Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz have been married for 45 years!
  • We have arrived at “Girlfriend Is Better”, the song that gives us the lyric “stop making sense” AND David Byrne in his big gray suit. Shoutout to costume designer Gail Blacker, who designed the suit, calling it “more of an architectural project than a clothing project”.
  • I love the moment during “Girlfriend Is Better” where David holds his mic in front of a crew member operating a hand-held stage light, and the crew member sings along without missing a beat! This is immediately followed by Byrne jokingly pointing the mic at the camera. Can he see me?
  • “Take Me to the River” is one of my favorite songs of all time, and includes the greatest bridge in music history (“Hug me/SQUEEZE me/Love me/TEASE me”). That being said, call me a godless heathen, but I prefer the album version over this live rendition. Also, I didn’t realize this was a cover of an Al Green song. I’m glad that the good Reverend is getting royalties from all this.
  • The show’s curtain call goes across both final songs. David uses a break in “Take Me to the River” to introduce the band by name, while “Crosseyed and Painless” gives the crew a much deserved moment of recognition. “Crosseyed” is also the song where they bump up the houselights and show us there was an audience the whole time!

Legacy 

  • “Stop Making Sense” premiered at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in April 1984, going into wide release that October. Critics loved it, with Leonard Maltin declaring it “one of the greatest rock movies ever made”, and the usually dismissive Pauline Kael calling the film “close to perfection”. The live album of the tour (also called “Stop Making Sense”) routinely ranks on lists of the best albums of all time.
  • Jonathan Demme spent the rest of his film career alternating between narrative and documentary films. Among Demme’s post-“Stop Making Sense” highlights are “Married to the Mob”, “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia”. The subjects of his subsequent concert films ranged from Neil Young to Robyn Hitchcock to Neil Young again to Justin Timberlake to Neil Young yet again.
  • Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the “Speaking in Tongues” tour would be the last tour Talking Heads ever embarked on. Talking Heads spent the rest of the ’80s making new albums, but disbanded in 1991 when David Byrne left the group. The original members did reunite briefly in 1999 to promote the 15th anniversary re-release of “Stop Making Sense”, and the group performed together one final time in 2002 as part of their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although Tom Tom Club still performs occasionally to this day, members have stated several times over the years that a full Talking Heads reunion is unlikely.
  • The closest this film has ever gotten to a sequel is “American Utopia”, the stage tour of David Byrne’s 2018 album of the same name, with a 2020 filmed version directed by Spike Lee.
  • “Stop Making Sense” is one of those movies that gets referenced more than parodied. One of the few full-on parodies comes from “Documentary Now!” and the episode “Final Transmission”. While I do love me some “Documentary Now!”, man is that episode a letdown. Maybe it’s just my overall dislike of Fred Armisen’s brand of humor. Ah well, they can’t all be gems.
  • When “Stop Making Sense” gets referenced in pop culture it’s almost always about the big suit. My first introduction to the big suit came from – of all things – an episode of “Doug”. Think Big.

Listen to This: Talking Heads made the National Recording Registry in 2016 with their 1980 album “Remain in Light”. The NRR calls the album “Talking Heads at their most essential – contradictory.” The official NRR write-up includes not one but two essays, as well as an interview with David Byrne and a Studio 360 piece about “Once in a Lifetime”.

And with that, we finish up the last Horse’s Head post of 2022 and Year Six! Thanks for reading along with me as I hit the 75% threshold of the National Film Registry! We’ll be back in January with a few selections from the NFR Class of 2022.

Happy Holidays and Happy Viewing,

Tony

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