Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Movie – Stop Making Sense (1984)

Over the years, the concert film I most often saw named by professional critics as the best of all time was 1978’s The Last Waltz.  This is because the music in it is what they listened to when they were younger and because Martin Scorcese directed it.  While I liked the music in the film a lot, the jarring transitions between songs, and the cuts back to a couple studio sessions, keep The Last Waltz from flowing as well as it should. 

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 Weymouth 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”.

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:

  1. Psycho Killer
  2. Heaven
  3. Thank You for Sending Me an Angel
  4. Found a Job
  5. Slippery People
  6. Burning Down the House
  7. Life During Wartime
  8. Making Flippy Floppy
  9. Swamp
  10. What a Day That Was
  11. This Must Be the Place
  12. Once in a Lifetime
  13. Genius of Love
  14. Girlfriend is Better
  15. Take Me to the River
  16. 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


           DVD                      Blu-ray


  1. Excellent choice. I saw this at an art theater in downtown Chicago when I was in high school--I'd been a Talking Heads fan already (and for a few years before their breakout "Speaking in Tongues" album). This is my favorite concert film, too.

    If you haven't already seen it, look for a copy of True Stories and watch that, too.

  2. @SJHoneywell - Thanks. I'm glad you liked it, too. I saw True Stories way back when it first came to video or cable. It was one of the first things I ever saw John Goodman in. Thanks for the suggestion, though, and please keep them coming.

  3. This is a great concert film Chip. Talking Heads is one of the many bands I discovered in the last years and I really enjoy their music. Well shot and well edited. Concert films are a hard category because you have to appreciate the music even if the film is well done!

  4. @Michael Parent - Thanks. I'm glad you liked it.

  5. Great review, Chip! It's one of my favorite concert films (and albums for that matter). Your commentary really hit home. Although I was still in high school this came out, I still identify with this time period, musically speaking. I also remember spending many, many hours listening to the Talking Heads and their like on my portable cassette player. Thanks for bringing back some good memories!

  6. @Barry P. - You're welcome, and thanks for all the kind words. I'm glad you liked it.

  7. I've seen both The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense. I agree that Stop Making Sense is better. I like the music in both, but I like the presentation of SMS much more.

  8. @KimWilson - Thanks. I agree on the better presentation.

  9. One thing (out of the many) that I love about the film is the use of lighting - there's different lighting (rear projection, spotlight, that lamp, etc.) in just about every song and it really adds a great deal to the stage presentation (while never impacting the music).

    I do disagree with your opinion as to why Last Waltz is usually considered one of the best though. If I did partially decide to initially watch it due to Scorsese's involvement, that doesn't at all bias my view of how great a document that film is of not only the music (I was never a big fan of The Band, but their music comes very alive during the concert) or of the countless other musicians that were part of that show, but of the times (life on the road, etc.) - the industry and the music was certainly changing and this seems like a good closure to "the 70s". Still, even without that the film soars at times - the Staples Singers joining for "The Weight" (one of the soundstage songs) never fails to give me chills, Van Morrisson's whirlwind "Caravan" is pure joy and do not even think about dissing Muddy Waters...B-) That short opening tune (which was actually their final encore) kicks things right into gear and I never felt things lag (even during the interviews off stage). I do love Scorsese's camera use during the concerts and soundstage scenes, but the whole film just lives and breathes.

    Having said that, I would give the nod to the non-stop fun of Stop Making Sense.

  10. @Bob Turnbull - Good point about the lighting in Stop Making Sense. Just to clarify - I liked the music in The Last Waltz quite a bit. It was the jarring transitions between songs that made it feel to me like it didn't flow very well. A great song would finish, the audience would start to cheer, then WHAM - dead silence as the next piece would get ready to start. Thanks for the incisive comment.