I freely admit that my choice of Stop Making Sense is also impacted by the music that I was listening to in college. I consider the music of The Talking Heads to be great songs that still hold up today. In addition to this, I consider this movie to be the absolute best at making you feel like you are part of the audience, which to me is the most important thing.
Director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) deliberately shot the film to minimize the appearance of cameras and the crowd. This required filming multiple concerts over multiple nights, shooting from one angle one night, another angle the next. If you look closely you will notice some small continuity errors (i.e. a beach ball that heads for the stage but never lands on it), but the larger events going on minimize any such distractions.
Demme also shot the film so you could often see all of the performers. Although music videos had been popular for several years, and the “Mtv editing” style had started to become more prevalent, there are no millisecond cuts from headshot to headshot, to crowd, to drummer, to singer, etc. There are longer cuts where you can see the interaction of the band’s players with each other. It shows how much they are enjoying themselves and just getting into playing the music.
Demme co-wrote the film with The Talking Heads. While it is a concert film, there are sequences within the performances that are more than just singing and playing.
Right from the beginning of the film we are shown that this is not going to be a normal concert. A completely bare stage is shown. There are no instruments, mikes, props, backdrop, or anything on it. Lead singer David Byrne walks out on stage with an acoustic guitar and a boombox. (For those of you who don’t know what that is, a boombox is a portable cassette tape player. Cassette tapes, which were media that had songs on them, would go in it then…you know what, let’s just say I’m old and move on, shall we?)
Byrne walks up to a mike that has been set up, starts the boombox, plays the guitar, and sings along to the musical track. It’s one of their early hits – Psycho Killer. After he finishes that song bassist Tina Weymouth comes out on stage for the next one. Drummer Chris Frantz and guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison join for the next two songs, so that by this time in the set the entire band is assembled on stage. It doesn’t stop there, though. Other musicians (members of Parliament-Funkadelic and the Brothers Johnson) come out song by song. We also see the roadies setting up the instruments for all of the musicians prior to them appearing. All of this creates a sense of building momentum and rising excitement. By the time they launch into their biggest hit – Burning Down the House – it is fantastic. The musicians are really into it, and in long shots you can see the crowd is dancing like crazy. It even made me feel like dancing because it was not like I was watching a movie; it was like I was there in the crowd watching the concert.
As the show progresses Byrne is just a constant bundle of energy. He runs around the stage (literally), he is expending enormous amounts of energy singing and interacting with the other musicians. In his comments on the DVD Byrne says at one point that if you want an incredible cardio workout just copy everything he does on stage during this film.
In the second half of the film, Byrne leaves the stage for a song. This serves two purposes: 1. it allows Talking Heads members
and Frantz to perform the song Genius of Love from their side project band the Tom Tom Club. (If you think Mariah Carey’s song “Fantasy” was written by her you will be surprised to learn she lifted the music from this Tom Tom Club song.); and 2. it allows David Byrne to get into his “big suit”. Weymouth
This image of him in the suit has become an iconic one. It is even featured on the cover of the DVD and CD. When he comes back out on stage wearing a suit many sizes too big, squared off and wide, yet still continues all of his moves on stage, it is very entertaining. I’ve embedded the video for the song “Girlfriend is Better” at the bottom of this post. It shows him in the suit and you will also hear in the lyrics where the title of the film came from.
The complete set list is as follows:
- Psycho Killer
- Thank You for Sending Me an Angel
- Found a Job
- Slippery People
- Burning Down the House
- Life During Wartime
- Making Flippy Floppy
- What a Day That Was
- This Must Be the Place
- Once in a Lifetime
- Genius of Love
- Girlfriend is Better
- Take Me to the River
- Crosseyed and Painless
The DVD/BD release adds performances of the songs Big Business and Cities, which were edited out of the theatrical release.
When the concert is complete it is only now that you really start to see the audience and their reaction to what they have just experienced. In a way this is consistent with only showing the band most of the movie. You are placed in the audience watching the band, and at the end it is as if you are now looking around at the audience surrounding you, joining with them in their enjoyment of the music.
I mentioned at the top that critics tend to name another concert film as the best ever, but it’s not like they hate this one. Stop Making Sense is 97% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes with critics (and 95% Fresh with audiences). Even if you have never heard of The Talking Heads and don’t recognize a single one of the song titles above, I still recommend you give this film a try. If you are a fan of the Talking Heads then I highly recommend this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars