Stop Making Sense (1984)

18 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For most people, it’s hard to find a better concert film than Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense.” At the time of its release, it was declared the “greatest concert film of all time” and was also notable for being the first movie made entirely using digital audio techniques. The techniques worked and the movie also had non-intrusive camera movements that also worked in its favor, capturing the fierce, dynamic energy of a fun rock concert. It’s hard to deny the film’s technical drive.

This is especially important, because what really distinguish a concert film from an album are the musical performance and the cinematography. And “Stop Making Sense,” capturing the high spirits and exhilarating impact of a riveting Talking Heads concert, has a lot going for it that cause audiences to praise it as much as they do.

For those who don’t know, the Talking Heads were a most influential and popular rock/funk group from the late-‘70s to the early-‘80s. Their music, which includes popular singles such as “Burning Down the House” and “Girlfriend is Better,” contains a large amount of types, such as rock, ska, and so forth. And oddly enough, for the time their songs were created, they hardly feel dated and are as enjoyable today as they may have been back when they were topping the pop charts.

The film was filmed over the span of four concerts in four days, with the first day being a dry run/rehearsal so director Demme and his crew can figure out where to position the cameras, and the other three days being the actual filming days, leaving the final version to be a showcase of the concert from all three performances. And strangely, for a musical documentary, the whole hour-and-a-half running time is directed at the stage and the band. No backstage footage. No interviews. Even the concert audience is rarely seen. It’s just David Byrne, his band, and the music—that’s it. And really, that’s all the film needed.

I love how the film begins. It’s low-key, beginning with a solo effort (with help from a cassette tape) from Byrne (“Psycho Killer”), a duet with Tina Weymouth (“Heaven”), and a few other numbers before the entire band is brought on stage with “Burning Down the House.” From there on in, the pieces are in place, the tempo picks up, and we’re in for a concert film that’s almost like an aerobics video, including the band jumping around on stage to the rhythm of certain songs. It’s the visual energy of the band that makes the film fun to watch. (Oh, and there’s also a number (“Girlfriend is Better”) in which Byrne sports an oversized suit that makes his head appear smaller. It’s strange and funny to look at.)

Even in 2015, “Stop Making Sense” is still an impressive concert film and still probably the best of its kind. Because the technical aspects are so well-done and the music still holds up, it’s as extraordinary today as it was in 1984 when it was released. I’ll tell you how well it worked for me—I wasn’t even that familiar with the Talking Heads upon seeing the movie for the first time, and it still delighted me.

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