Top 50 Films of the 80s — Number Twelve


#12 — Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)
There are few movies that bring me as much immediate and consistent joy as Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, the brilliant concert film featuring Talking Heads. From the very beginning, with opening credits that ape those of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterwork Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and a concert performance that starts with a single man on stage with a guitar and a boombox, the film is a vivacious celebration of the exuberant pleasure of performance. As lead singer David Byrne begins the show with a viciously sharp take on “Psycho Killer,” he practically performs a combative dance with Demme’s camera, which, the director establishes immediately, has been given the freedom to go wherever it wants. It’s right up on the stage, staring down Byrne as he peers back, undulating his soldiers and skittering across the ground as if it’s been electrified. The show will eventually incorporate props, distinctive oversize costumes and striking visual accompaniments, but it opens with a landscape stripped bare, as if offering a preemptive counterargument to the notion that the band derives their impact through the array of theatrics at their disposal. It’s the music, not the magic.

Except, of course, the totality of the show Talking Heads delivers is purely astounding, a physical marathon combined with a deconstructionist museum piece writ large. Byrne and bandmates Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth were famously fellow alumni of Rhode Island School of Design, a background that helped make certain that the covers of Talking Heads albums popped like no others. It was perhaps inevitable that some of that stylish creativity would manifest in the band’s live performances, and a major part of Demme’s insightful directing job is always finding the finest way to take it all in.

As opposed to most other concert films, especially up to that point, which exhibited a fascination with the rapturous reactions of the crowd as an apparent means to drum up enthusiasm for the performance through whooping eyewitness fan testimony, Demme stays trained on the band members as they ply their craft. The excitement of the audiences at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, where footage was shot over the course of three nights, is not just secondary, it’s incidental. Demme’s simple and ingenious commitment is to capture every ounce of the band’s energy that inspired that excitement in the first place. It’s not until the end of the film that shots of the audience (and the director himself, flailing happily as he watches the concert) are incorporated in any meaningful way. By then, it’s punctuation rather than persuasion.

Drummer Frantz, bassist Weymouth, guitarist Jerry Harrison and the other expert musicians incorporated into the show are all quietly masterful in their roles onstage, but it’s truly Byrne’s show and he is nothing short of riveting in his agitated charisma. Watching him vibrate through the various songs, sometimes jerking around as if he’s channeling them unwillingly, is exhausting and thrilling in equal measure. He seemingly approaches the task of lead singer of a rock band as a intellectual abstraction and, through the process of unpacking its possibilities, finds an uncommon sincerity to the act of standing before a microphone and belting out words in the company of a driving beat. Talking Heads were certainly the subjects of great respect and acclaim by this point, but it was before Byrne had been elevated to the position of elder statesmen for the art of rock, or, as Time magazine would term it when they put him on the cover a couple of years later, “Rock’s Renaissance Man.” Instead, there’s a sense that he’s simply a guy putting on a show in the best way he knows how. Thankfully, Demme was there to put it in a cinematic time capsule, created with the plainspoken genius that was rapidly becoming his trademark.

6 thoughts on “Top 50 Films of the 80s — Number Twelve

    1. I have feeling this same comment will be submitted for every entry from now until the top. Well, except for #1. And probably #5.

  1. Concert movies do very little for me. I feel they should not be in this category, and therefore, “Not better than Gremlins.”

    At the same token, Gremlins as a concert film is just plain awful.

    1. I generally think concert films are not very good. Neither are live albums. Stop Making Sense is one of the few inspired concert films. The live album is only fine, which says a lot about the visual ingenuity Demme brings to the film.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s