Criticwire Classic of the Week: Jonathan Demme's 'Stop Making Sense'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“Stop Making Sense”
Dir: Jonathan Demme
Criticwire Average: —

A testament to the power of the live concert experience, Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” is joy incarnate. It’s the rare concert film that focuses almost entirely on “the concert,” both in the abstract — its creation, its scope, its aesthetic beauty — and in the concrete, specifically the live experience courtesy of Talking Heads, a band that used punk, funk, and the avant-garde to stimulate the head and body in tandem. Frontman David Byrne brims with a singular, unparalleled energy from the moment he steps onto the stage with his cassette player, but it’s the touring band’s dynamic presence that inject a poignant warmth into the concert, as if we’re watching a family bonded by an artistic vision create something beautiful in real time. It’s an astonishing achievement that’s not only one of Demme’s greatest films, but is arguably the greatest concert film ever made.

Filmed over the course of a few performances at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, “Stop Making Sense” eschews many of the traditional signifiers established by previous concert films like “Woodstock” and “The Last Waltz.” For one, Demme never shows the concert audience until the very last minutes of the film, preferring to make the experience as immersive and intimate for the movie audience instead of just placing us in the crowd. Demme doesn’t just shoot the Talking Heads from a distance or from a fixed set of angles, but instead engages with the band itself as they fill their stage with music and dance, following Byrne as he sprints in circles or Steve Scales’ emotive drumming with an innate sense of rhythm. Though the distinct nature of the band’s set often captivates all on its own — Byrne is joined by another member of the group with each successive song in the first third of the film — Demme is perfectly in sync with Byrne and co., feeding off their live wire, humanistic spirit to illustrate how music can unify the body and affect the soul.

But if there’s a main subject in “Stop Making Sense,” it’s Byrne himself, an artist who craftily uses emotional distance as a tool to connect with the audience on a physical level. From the first moment we see his wide-eyed, yet somehow blank expression in the first few notes of “Psycho Killer,” Byrne creates the sense that he’s a God-like puppet master, controlling every inch of the stage but still separate from it. Compare his unmoving face not just with the expressive gestures of his bandmates but with the passionate energy of his body; it’s as if he’s controlling himself from the outside. Yet one only has to watch his breathtaking dance moves during “Burning Down The House” or “Life During Wartime” for evidence of Byrne’s captivating, communal presence. Through isolating wide shots and familiar close-ups, Demme emphasizes how Byrne’s cerebral approach can create an intense, emotional energy that goes far beyond the mind. In fact, “Stop Making Sense” tracks Byrne as he slowly gains emotional awareness with the help of the community he’s built. When Byrne dances with a floor lamp during “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” it’s so moving because it feels like he’s learning how to connect with the light in the world for the first time, even though he’s surrounded by the shadows of a stage.

More than anything else, “Stop Making Sense” is a mesmerizing delight with a vested interest in getting its audience out of their chairs and onto their feet. There are scenes in this film that inspire utter awe, not just Byrne’s trademark Big Suit, but his aerobics-style running, or Alex Weir’s high kicks, or Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt’s soothing vocals and energetic dancing. I’ve seen this film upwards of ten times and the sheer energy of Byrne and the rest of the Talking Heads never fails to put me in a great mood and/or emotionally overwhelm me. There’s a understated, unspoken community on stage in “Stop Making Sense,” but its real gift is that it can instill the feeling of community in its audience time and time again. It’s the best live music can ever accomplish, same as it ever was.

More thoughts from the web:

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

The music of the Talking Heads draws from many sources, in addition to traditional rock ‘n’ roll. You can hear the echoes, in Byrne’s voice, of one of his heroes, country singer Hank Williams. In the music itself, there are elements of reggae and of gospel, especially in the driving repetitions of single phrases that end some of the songs. What is particularly delightful is that the Talking Heads are musical: For people who have passed over that invisible divide into the age group when rock sounds like noise, the Heads will sound like music. The film is good to look at. The director is Jonathan Demme (“Melvin and Howard”), making his first concert film, and essentially using the visuals of the Talking Heads rather than creating his own. Instead of the standard phony cutaways to the audience (phony because, nine times out of ten, the audience members are not actually reacting to the moment in the music that we’re hearing), Demme keeps his cameras trained on the stage. And when Byrne and company use the stage-level lights to create a shadow play behind them, the result is surprisingly more effective than you might imagine: It’s a live show with elements of “Metropolis.” Read more.

Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Mr. Demme, in addition to avoiding any visual monotony, has gracefully tailored the film to suit the band’s stage show. Using long, slow camera motions (the handsome cinematography is by Jordan Cronenweth), he captures the group members at close range without losing the overall visual effects they achieve on stage. The show’s conception, which is both subtle and sophisticated, is credited to Mr. Byrne. “Stop Making Sense” owes very little to the rock film-making formulas of the past. It may well help inspire those of the future. Read more.

Stephanie Zacharek, Salon

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. Read more.

Noel Murray, Red Bull Music Academy

But “Stop Making Sense” isn’t just a document of a band; it’s a film, with a structure, and with concessions made to how everything will work as a piece of cinema. In that Rome movie, the sound is muddy, and the cameras keep showing the same three or four angles. (Plus, Belew’s guitar dominates the mix too much in nearly every song, making the band less “Talking Heads” than “Talking Heads w/ Adrian Belew.”) For “Stop Making Sense,” Demme and the band weren’t above a little fakery. Some of the sounds on the soundtrack are overdubs, added later – including Byrne’s famous pre-intermission line, “Does anybody have any questions?” – and even in the original stage show, the band fudged some. When Byrne walks out at the beginning and presses “play” on a boombox, the percussion track actually plays from the soundboard, not from the tape on stage; and during the two-person performance of “Heaven” that follows immediately afterward, background vocalist Lynn Mabry sings the chorus from offstage. Most of these “fixes” are invisible, but the whole design of the “Stop Making Sense” tour was meant to call attention to the process of putting on a big rock show. Each time the black-clad stagehands roll in a new instrument, or a new lighting rig, it changes the visual and aural dynamic of “Stop Making Sense” in a way that the audience recognizes far more than they would if everything were in place from the beginning. And then, post-intermission, when all the pieces are already there, Byrne and Demme still add quirky elements to differentiate each song, whether it’s the spooky lighting-from-below during “What a Day That Was” or Byrne dancing with a floor-lamp during the great love song “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).” Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, Letterboxd

This was the first movie I ever reviewed, for my high school newspaper at the time of its release. (Alas, the text has been lost.) Wonder which would surprise my 16-year-old self more: that I’d one day become a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, or that I’d one day weep tears of joy ever time I watch “Stop Making Sense”? Because Talking Heads were a super-cerebral band with a seemingly borderline-autistic frontman, the show’s sense of community and its nonstop joie de vivre now seem “unexpected” (given that I’ve seen the movie like 15 or 20 times) and uniquely thrilling; as Byrne notes on the commentary track, there’s a weird little narrative in which an uptight white dude gradually loosens up and frees himself, but what he (understandably) doesn’t mention is that he managed to pull this off without making the additional musicians, who are all black, seem either Magical or second-class. It’s an extended family up there. And I can’t explain why I get weepy when the camera cuts from Harrison doing a goofy little dance with Holt and Mabry to Byrne running in place with Weir (at the climax of “Burning Down the House,” which is not exactly poignancy central—even the song’s lyrics are basically random gibberish), but I always do these days. Read more.

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