Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This time round, it’s fullest immersion in one of the great filmed concerts as we follow Jonathan Demme into the weird, wonderful world of David Byrne and Talking Heads with 1984’s Stop Making Sense! Nothing’s better than that — is it?
Hey, it’s time for the National Film Registry’s obligatory annual concert film! In this column we’ve picked our way through the concert as document of a band working with their extensive network of contemporaries and influences at the height of their power on one last glory ride, and the concert as record of a time and place with people turning tragedy into cause for exuberant celebration. Today, on our third round of live performance pictures, I’d like you to walk with me through Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, and explore the concert as a piece of magic.
It begins not with the group, or the music, or even a whole person, but feet and a boombox. “Hi, I’ve got a tape I wanna play,” our figure says, reaching down to activate the box into an electronic sampled drumbeat, all cracking snares as he starts on the guitar and we pan up cross a plain gray suit to David Byrne, neck bobbing and features stark as he sings “Psycho Killer,” our opening number. The song’s dramatically stripped back from its original album version on Talking Heads ’77, production reduced to what one man and a sample can manage, reflective of the barren stage around Byrne with the house lights fully open and all the discarded equipment for other productions plainly visible in back. Whenever the camera’s behind him, we’re keenly aware of the great black nothingness he’s singing towards, the crowd near invisible, leaving us only with this strange guy bobbing to the music, getting a bit more energetic in his movements on the bridge, wandering off to let the drum samples do their thing and shuddering like he’s been shot on the popping breaks. Here is where we start, with Byrne and the group’s uneasy, paranoid tendencies front ’n’ center, the dominant mood, the pulse which will underscore the entire performance.
This spartan presentation is to change as stagehands in Noh theatre black begin their preparations around Byrne, and another bandmate joins him after song’s close. Tina Weymouth, in suit near identical to the lead singer’s, arrives on bass to perform “Heaven,” calming the mood with wistful imaginings of a bar where the exact same party plays out exactly the same way every time, and nothing ever happens. Jordan Croenweth’s camerawork emphasizes the synchronization of their simple, focused movements, while editor Lisa Day crossfades to provide a full look at the stage before crew members wheel in the first major piece of scenery, a drumkit shortly after occupied by Chris Frantz. His arrival and energetic drumming on “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” immediately kicks the picture into a higher gear, with the camera circling around Frantz’s kit before emphasizing Byrne and Weymouth playing off Franz with exaggerated footstomping motions towards the drummer on his part and whole-body wigglin’ on hers. The expanding sonic landscape gains further enrichment when rhythm guitarist Jerry Harrison moseys in for “Found A Job,” stabilizing the wild energy of the previous song into the focused parable about a couple whose arguments about bad television give way to making their own. With this, fifteen minutes into the film, we have our core group, that baseline of social anxiety and phobia for modern living grounded in a steady bassline, a rollicking live drumbeat, a fellow guitarist to harmonize and challenge, the full picture of Talking Heads as a new wave band heavily inflected by punk and funk and disco properly blossomed — but not yet fully bloomed.
All this time, as the camera emphasizes the band’s sturdiness as a four-body unit and the skillful playing from each member, the house lights have dimmed down and the crew continued on their work of assembling the stage, now with an elevated keyboard stand to the left and entire mini-stage of percussion instruments to the right. Harrison mounts the former as percussionist Steve Scales settles before some bongos and backup singers/dancers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt take their place at Byrne’s side. As they launch into “Slippery People” off the band’s latest album Speaking in Tongues, the camerawork continues on a trick the conscious mind likely doesn’t recognize on first viewing; with a total of seven performers onstage and more yet to come, each player’s introductory song gives them an ample amount of screentime to prime the viewer on not just their personality and mannerisms, but also an appreciation for what they contribute to the musical structure. A fine approach for “Slippery People,” then, as this habit of giving Scales’ pounding additional percussive slaps and the backup team’s roaring dual vocals emphasizes just how much bigger the music has grown, how having this enormous rhythm gives Byrne the energy to imitate his fellow vocalists’ wide leg-swinging dance as they mirror his guitar strumming, how when everyone comes to decisive, blaring hits at the climax it rockets through your bones and practically pins you to the wall. The potion is brewing, the spell weaving, the electricity in the air gathering for a major peaking burst.
The cloudburst comes in two songs back to back, when Harrison resumes rhythm guitar and cedes the keys to Bernie Worrell, and Alex Wier joins to complete the ensemble. The dancers start to groove, everything stands still, and Worrell raises his hands before the utter smashing drop that is the start to “Burning Down the House.” The camera is all over the place here, capturing the singers rocking with Harrison, Weymouth jamming on a bassy miniature keyboard, Frantz slaying his drum kicks, Worrell riding the rhythm in his own world, Wier shmoovin and groovin and putting his all into every booming repetition of the title lyric. For all this, with the energy at fullest crackle unleashed, it’s still Byrne who grabs primary attention when he drops to the ground in violent shakes before rushing over to jog in place with Wier, their legs reaching practically high as their waists, and it’s an attention he does not relinquish for “Life During Wartime.” There may be a party on high blast raging across the stage, the front line of the group running a synchronized aerobics routine as the back line completely throw themselves into the music, but Byrne’s eccentricities dominate as the camera locks on his wiggly popping dances, his low-bent circling round a suddenly shortened mic stand, his fitful drop upon his back in a semi-fetal position, his full laps round the stage run like the music’s snapping at his heels and he has to get away before it devours him. That essential vibe to Talking Heads’ songs, the visceral clash between trying to hold your center in a world you know is violently spinning apart under your feet and losing yourself in strong rhythms increasingly informed by Afrobeat and post-punk as the urge to dance until your limbs fly off intensifies, is right there in Byrne as he turns utterly maniac across these songs, and yet he always comes right back to his bandmates, participating in the next bit of choreography with perfect timing no matter how wild he just bugged out. These twin moods have formed a resonance cascade right before our eyes, a near-out-of-control musical fire in which the cameras can only rush to keep up, counting on our familiarity with each component to pick them out from the background or identify them in the mix according to our proclivities, banking on our trusting whatever it shows as the most important thing on stage at any given moment. No small wonder the piece ends with the dubbed-in line, “Thank you! Does anyone have any questions?”
Some time ago, the stagehands became properly invisible, neither easily discernible in the background nor regularly granted focus by the camera, and this is because “Making Flippy Floppy” represents the point when Stop Making Sense is in the deepest grip of Talking Heads’ cinematic magic act. Thanks to the compression of time through selective editing (already seen in some measure when you consider the performance is actually the best angles on three nights), we go right from the deepest maelstrom with everyone all sweaty and bedraggled from effort to the group freshly cleaned after an unseen break, costumes changed and hair redone, huge projection screens displaying oblique messages of social conformity one word at a time towering overhead. In the transfer from wild rager to solid rock fundamentals, with Byrne back on guitar after a few songs going wild with dancing, the film takes full advantage of confluence between musical effect and visual function to transform our surroundings without a hitch. And then again as we enter “Swamp,” a dirty-minded and dirtier-sounding send-up to ZZ Top, with only Byrne properly lit by a spotlight from the heavens for his snarling, marching performance as the rest of the band is cast in heavy shadows before a pure red backdrop. And then again for “What A Day That Was,” when all is full dark except for powerful underlighting that makes the individual performers look alternately like gaunt creatures peering out from between dimensions and great giants sending down the cryptic, vaguely apocalyptic yet still danceable song of some far-off mythic event from on high. And AGAIN for “This Must Be The Place,” when everything calms back down for David Byrne’s loving ode to the stability and serenity of home literalized by singing the song to and dancing with a suddenly-appearing and -vanishing lamp, forever nearly dropping it but always catching it to represent a slippery but devoted grip on the important things.
This darkened liminal space can be whatever we want, shape itself into whatever we need, the performers slipping through the changes like nothing, for it is their sound and collective energy which makes these shifts possible. The style jumps about more radically than anywhere else in the film during this middle stretch, and it remains so effective for Byrne and company have eradicated any sense of the stage as a physical location. It is merely Talking Heads, and their perspective, and their group ardor feeding off and quintupling what each has on their own. Stop Making Sense has earnt a reputation for transporting a viewer into the concert experience like few other concert films, and I’d posit it succeeds in this because Demme’s cinematic techniques compliment Byrne’s theatrical approach to the show to generate the same sensation you get at a truly great concert, one of the world entire falling away to leave you with naught save the band, your trust fully in their hands as they take you on a journey in which everything they banished comes roaring out through their music afresh and molded into their own distinct interpretation of what it all is and ought be. We are now full body deep in the magic of the moment, rocked and guided by the currents of sound, willing to go along with anything and everything the band can offer.
All to say this is about the perfect point for the camera to stop roving around through angle changes and cuts to capture the rest of the band in quick highlight shots, settle down into one angle on a sweat-soaked Byrne in his TV preacher glasses, and exemplify the thematic ideals behind the band and film alike in the jarring stylistic shot in the arm of “Once in a Lifetime.” Essentially a live recreation of the famous low-budget music video, it finds us hyperfocused on Byrne in a single unbroken take unlike any other song in the film, the rest of the band sunken into the soundtrack as he scream-shouts about submersing yourself in the vanities of bigger houses and beautiful cars without ever once stopping to live, chopping across his arm and smacking his forehead and dissolving into paroxysms as the reality of what he’s done settles in his mind. The spell’s grip is tighter than ever and yet in deliberate doubt, so raw and intense an expression of the band’s most primal selves above even the opening “Psycho Killer” ripping through the fully assembled ensemble, to a point the movie needs let Byrne off the stage and transform the band into Tom Tom Club for a runthrough of their hit single “Genius of Love” to find its center again. Functionally speaking this was done to give Byrne a chance to change costumes for his next number, and Weymouth actually wanted the number cut from the movie for its obvious nature as a time filler. In the context of a film audience’s binding within the effects of what Talking Heads could and can be live, though, the lighter, synth-driven, more conventionally new wave atmosphere of Tom Tom Club’s appearance following the deep-seated paranoia on “Once in a Lifetime” gives the audience a necessary break, a little breather from the untempered schism of weirdness before Byrne comes back to climax the concert and break the enchantment with “Girlfriend is Better.”
(Quick intrusion for a note on versions: the copy I watched was an extended cut, including three songs removed from the original theatrical release and most home releases, these being “Cities” before “Burning Down the House,” and “Big Business” and “I Zimbra” back to back before “Genius of Love.” While they’re fine performances on their own, they do disrupt the flow Demme assembled for the screen pretty noticeably: “Cities” doesn’t advance the building eruption of sound very meaningfully when Wier comes on before Worrell, and the visual components of the other two songs aren’t much special compared to what came before as Byrne running around to interact with his bandmates one at a time feels a bit repetitive of earlier routines. The theatrical cut captures the sensation of being at a Talking Heads concert better than the cut containing the entire concert, thanks to the second-pass thinking and selective highlighting afforded by the editing process. I would, however, hazard a guess that the greater reliance here on wide shots at angles positioned further from the stage indicates these numbers might’ve integrated into the film’s structure had the raw footage produced interesting results, which it evidently didn’t for one reason or another.)
(Also the soundtrack is great musically, yet ultimately falls short of the film experience. You seriously need the visual components for many of these songs to hit anywhere close to proper intensity.)
One of the group’s many explorations of affection tainted by materialism and ego, and probably their best in this live rendition thanks to the funkier instrumentation compared to the album version and the passion behind the vocals, “Girlfriend is Better” is the number featuring Byrne in his famous Big Suit, head and neck made into some kind of serpentine turtle peeked out’ve overlarge fabric that holds its shape almost too well until the man within starts dancing and sends it all a-shimmy-shakin’. The idea communicated through the song is much the same as on “Once in a Lifetime,” stripped of the panicked self-reflection and replaced by role-play as a speaker who proudly embraces the insensibility of enjoying his partner as a status of superiority and the inevitability of things falling apart if he can have her and the power she represents right now, all of which make fantastic metaphor for expression through a man lost in formal businesswear, stiffly jerking about as the crew circle the stage with floodlamps that cast enormous roving shadows upon the backboard. There’s no visual in the concert better suited to capturing the memorable absurdity of Talking Heads’ music than the Big Suit, and the crew’s renewed active presence before the camera indicates the center can’t hold much longer before conceits start flying off in arcs or flesh starts failing. You might even take the film’s best moment — when Byrne, belting his way through repetitions of the lyric that gives the film its name, holds the mic out to a lamp-bearing assistant, and the guy comes in with his own perfectly-tuned “STOP MAKING SENSE” before going right back to work as Byrne turns to offer the camera the mic — as a sign the next twenty minutes will be spent easing us out’ve this headspace, back into reality.
Indeed, while “Take Me To the River” starts off with some heavy blue lightstands illuminating the stage for a novel visual effect, they dim throughout the extended jam performance, and this and the final number in “Crosseyed and Painless” see Byrne gradually shedding the Big Suit to stand all skinny and sweatworn as the emphasis changes from what arcane effects the band can weave over the crowd to the band themselves. One wakes up as the group riffs on Al Green’s chorus for an extended period, noodles through the custom live introduction to “Crosseyed,” keeps their groove going as Byrne walks about the stage introducing everyone by name. The camera goes roving about again, seeking out everyone’s tics and best performative traits as they press on for what reads as an encore done without any need to ask, and breaks us into full reality by finally taking interest in the crowd, peppering the final song with varying shots of people dancing ’n’ swaying ’n’ singing along. For the pulse and throb and pound of all components combining for an alchemical transmutation into a single unit animated by all these influences and artistic goals and thematic complexities expressed through sound and vision, the concert is great because there’s nine immensely talented musicians on stage, led by a sound defined four of that, derived from a vision by one of those, complimented by a hard-working and well-rehearsed crew (who get as much highlight and accolade from Byrne as the concert closes as anyone else), performing for a mass of people whose long-delayed rapturous reaction to the music confirms everything a film viewer has felt throughout as shared and universal. We’ve experienced the sum total of what Talking Heads was in 1984, gone from the shoes and boombox to the massive band in half-darkness all swaying lamps and Big Suits, and back down to the truth of this danceable expression of living with your back against the wall convinced they’re coming for you any minute.
What makes less sense, and yet all too much, than the idea folks you’d bump into down the street could get together and make this? Music, as I’ve asserted in the past, is truly magic when brought to full bear, and Stop Making Sense embodies this high strangeness in its purest form. Easy to guess why Talking Heads stopped performing live after this concert; as Byrne mentioned when interviewing himself, they’d only go on tour again if they had something to say they could only say through live performance, and it’s damned hard to top the spellcraft on display herein.
Does anyone have any questions?
Welp, another week down, another article in the bag! Much as Demme turns focus over to the crowd for his finale, I’m tossing it to y’all for your thoughts! On the movie, or the music, or the band, or the varying phenomena concert films can represent! Hash it out in the comments, and stay tuned for our next article in a fortnight! Come then, we’ll talk about Wes Craven’s first genre-lifespan-extending revolutionary contribution to the slasher where he took their killers from lummoxes possessed of uncanny speed and cunning to explicitly supernatural monsters with A Nightmare on Elm Street from 1984. Being so popular a film, you can readily find it for rental or purchase on all the major digital retailers, or to stream on HBO Max. See you then!
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