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David Byrne is one of the most resilient musical artists in modern history, and his talent for satisfying audiences while leading them into unexpected places has shown no signs of wear. As recently as February, Byrne was throwing a party on Broadway every night with “American Utopia,” resurrecting and refashioning some of his greatest hits alongside new compositions into a visually dazzling meditation on how a troubled nation can harbor greater potential. At some point, the Spike Lee-directed version of “American Utopia” announced earlier this year may give more audiences a chance to hang with Byrne’s latest euphoric sensation; until then, there is still “Stop Making Sense,” which still delivers all the joy you need to get through the day.
Jonathan Demme’s groundbreaking 1984 concert film has been saluted so many times over it almost feels redundant to sing its praises once again. However, like all timeless art, “Stop Making Sense” is the gift that keeps on giving: Awe-inspiring, surreal, and unafraid to be a little silly, Demme’s thrilling combination of three live performances at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood keeps reinventing itself, with Byrne’s shape-shifting dance moves and serene disposition operating as a calming figure at the center of organized chaos.
The show unfolds as a gradual accumulation of energy and motion, with Demme’s cameras magically attuned to every new development. The band’s anthemic style unfurls as a physical equation, as the robust set design emerges in piecemeal from the dark void. This accretion of presence is such a staggering achievement — from Byrne alone with a boombox and a guitar to the army of musicians eventually behind him — and unfurls as a triumph of expression in difficult times. At the time of its release, Pauline Kael called it “a guaranteed cure for anyone’s blues” and “a celebration of music that never grows old.” Indeed: Almost 40 years later, “Stop Making Sense” feels fresher than ever.
A lot that stems from the sheer catchiness of the Talking Heads’ best-known tracks, but it owes just as much to Byrne’s otherworldly stage presence. Writing on the film for it 15-year anniversary, Stephanie Zacharek compared Byrne’s stumble-dancing through “Psycho Killer” to Jean Paul Belmondo at the end of “Breathless,” though “unlike Belmondo, he doesn’t fall: As a psycho killer, he’s indestructible.” True enough, but there’s a fragility to Byrne’s movements all the same, the sense of a figure dancing through life with the trepidatious possibility that he might face-plant at any moment. Faced with that possibility, however, all he can do is keep dancing away — with a lamp, in a giant kabuki suit, whatever it takes to keep him going. He’s a figure of uncertainty careening through the domestic and bizarre with all the power he can muster.
And as he sings, Byrne’s work takes on a prophetic depth. There has been a lot said about Byrne’s subdued expression throughout the show, but on a recent viewing, his face registered to this viewer as a kind of repressed dread that morphs into courage across 88 minutes — a responsibility to preach the awful truth of the world while inspiring others to keep moving through it. Listening to these songs in 2020, it’s a wonder how much they resonate at this particular moment, when the world faces an invisible threat clamping down on everyday life. After all, the show confronts an unspecified “Life During Wartime,” bemoans what happens “when the days go by” and, hell, even includes a wistful line about how “Everyone is trying to get to the bar.” Watching “Stop Making Sense” gives you hope that we’ll all get there eventually.
The most gratifying aspect of “Stop Making Sense” comes with its climactic montage, set to “Crosseyed and Painless,” of a diverse audience bursting with glee. Until this moment, the show exists exclusively as an onstage phenomenon; the crowd hovers in the shadows as a possibility. Demme seems to argue that the sheer jubilation of “Stop Making Sense” extends beyond the constraints of its talented musicians and becomes a life philosophy: Life may be grim, but nothing can stop the desire to have a good time at all costs. If there was ever a place and time for that notion, this must be it.
“Stop Making Sense” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime.
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