“I’ve got a tape I want to play.”
Byrne says and then kicks into a solo rendition of Talking Heads’ immortal Psycho Killer with a drum machine being played in the back. The tightly controlled and choreographed show with one member of the original band joining Byrne at a time and after the initially 4 members Byrne, Tina Waymouth, Christ Frantz and Jerry Harrison are all on stage, the big band full of session of musicians join Talking Heads. Stop Making Sense documents both Talking Heads but also the many stages of the band and also it hints at the viewer of the eventual split, they would never tour again after the Stop Making Sense tour but remain a studio band for a the rest of the decade. This may be all in hindsight but it does have the feeling they know this is the end of the band at least as a collective unit and Frantz has confirmed he kind knew it was the end.
It’s directed by Jonathan Demme even though Demme uses the credit “A Film By Jonathan Demme And Talking Heads“. The influence of Byrne over the band is prevalent throughout, he completely designed the stage design himself and he even didn’t allow water bottles on stage, you can see a few plastic cups of water however. Byrne who was always a big film buff (in the press conference on disc he talks about seeing the then brand new film The Matrix) hired Title designer Pablo Ferro to do the opening credits in a similar style to the ones he did for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove but it doesn’t have any spelling mistakes unlike that classic film as far as I can tell. Byrne would even go on and direct the feature True Stories which the film’s music was re-recorded by Talking Heads as their 7th studio album.
The set Talking Heads plays is solid mixture of the early Modern Lovers inspired garage rock of Psycho Killer and Thank You for Sending Me an Angel, Jerry Harrison was an original member of The Modern Lovers even though this material was written by before joined the band. The more afrobeat and funk infused stylings of the Remain in Light and then recent Speaking in Tongues material makes a strong presence along with a cut from David Byrne score ballet The Catherine Wheel which is what Speaking in Tongues should have sounded like in my opinion. The song choice also suggests they wanted to do a showcase of their body of work because they knew this would be the final tour.
Byrne is at his most maniac and the band’s cocaine use has been confirmed in the preceding years and Byrne certainly looks like he is coked out of his brain especially during the performance of Fear of Music’s Life During Wartime where he literally runs a lap around the stage near the end of the song. It’s strongly rumoured during the Tom Tom Club performance when Byrne changes into the iconic big suit, it was also a cocaine break. Cocaine use is also referenced with “We went insane when we took cocaine” in Genius of Love the song Tom Tom Club plays. However this was 1983 after-all and cocaine and even payola was widespread, Burning Down the House their biggest hit was made a hit by payola, which Byrne has penned a piece on.
Demme and Byrne famously use the technique which Scorsese used in The Last Waltz (his concert film on The Band) by never showing the audience so the viewer can judge the performance on it’s on merits, the only sizeable audience shots are at the very end. The lighting isn’t standard rock n’ roll concert lighting and during This Must Be The Place (one of the film’s many highlights) the stage is lit only by a lamp which Byrne dances with. The crew is never hidden and even Demme near the end has a small cameo nodding along to the music and Byrne brings the crew out and thanks them during the final song.
Stop Making Sense along with Gimme Shelter are often called the “greatest concert films ever made” and it’s no wonder why, Stop Making Sense remains the pinnacle of the genre and very few concert films remotely come close to being as inventive musically and cinematically. If I only had a mild gripe with the film is I wish it was made during the 1979 Fear of Music tour but that’s just a personal preference and for the big band era it does miss the guitar work of Adrian Belew who left the year before under frosty circumstances. Demme also calls his concert films “performance” films, he would continue making them with artists like Robyn Hitchcock and Neil Young who along with Talking Heads are musicians who have a sightly askew look on the world. He would also film one of Spalding Grey’s monologues which used similar cinematic techniques to Stop Making Sense. Demme’s better films like Something Wild and Married to the Mob also share a similarly oft-kilter absurdist worldview.
Second Sight has cleared the transfer up considerably over the previously available Palm Pictures Blu-Ray with them proclaiming they have “removed over 60,000 instances of dirt and damage”. The audio was in pretty amazing shape already so I don’t know how much audio restoration was undertook if any. The disc ports over the previous bonus features such a the exceptional commentary by Demme and Talking Heads (recorded separately), the 1999 press conference for the re-release, the iconic David Byrne Interviews…David Byrne along with 3 bonus deleted tracks Cities (a personal favourite), Big Business and their ode to Dadaism I Zimba.
Music, Concert Film | USA, 1984 | Exempt | Second Sight | 16th November 2016 (UK) | Dir. Jonathan Demme | Talking Heads | Buy: Stop Making Sense [Blu-Ray]