PCWB’s Cinematic Nirvana #6: Stop Making Sense

Stop Making Sense (1984, dir. Jonathan Demme)

Home – is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there
I come home she lifted up her wings
I Guess that this must be the place
I can’t tell one from the other
Did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time Before we were born
If someone asks, this is where I’ll be . . . where I’ll be

There have been some great concert films over time; The Last Waltz that  followed the last ever show from The Band, Gimme Shelter that documented the tragic events of The Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont and the empowering Wattstax that covered the 1972 Stax concert in Watts (that features some excellent performances and also THAT Jesse Jackson speech). More often than not, these films would be time capsules for an important event in musical or history as a whole (with music being a tie in) that add some form of context to the film.

Despite lacking in historical significance or even a documenting a monumental gig (like LCD Soundsystem’s “Shut Up and Play the Hits” did for their last ever show), Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” is without a doubt, the greatest Rock concert film ever made, even if (and lord knows why) you’re not a fan of Talking Heads.

The format and concept of the film is a thing of beauty. The show begins with lead singer David Byrne taking to a stark stage with a guitar and a cassette tape playing a click drum. As the show progresses and as each song passes, the show starts to come together; the rest of the band and backing band take the stage individually and the set is put together over time. It’s stunning to see these developments take place in front of your eyes as we’re accustom to an entire band taking to a stage together. Instead, we’re getting a progression and further layers of sound added over time.

Stop Making Sense is presented very much as a film. The footage is incredibly crisp and the choice of shots more focused on creating an enjoyable watch than you would expect. Take David Byrne’s freak-out near the end of “Psycho Killer” as it looks like stock footage from a film as opposed to something occurring in the middle of a live performance. Credit for that has to go to Demme and his quality of direction, something missing from the majority of concert films released.

What’s equally as interesting is the lack of crowd noise. Unlike many live recordings or concert films, there is very little audible crowd noise. Interestingly, it was David Byrne’s decision to mute the crowd noise as much as possible to allow the viewer/listener to make their own judgements on the performance and not to be swayed by the applause of a live crowd. Tied in with this is the severe lack of crowd shots of any kind with the cameras facing the band face on. Still, in place of relentless crowd shots, you get amazing close ups on the backing band at points, my favourite being the emphasis on the backing vocalists during “Slippery People” as they appear to be having the most amount of fun possible.

As innovative and visually stunning as the film is, what essentially matters is the music. Whilst not my favourite Talking Heads live performance (their other live compilation “The Name of this Band is Talking Heads” which is an absolute must have if you dig the band), the choice of mostly hit singles and a joyous appearance from Talking Heads side-project Tom Tom Club make it a really easy watch or listen. Even the songs you are less familiar with are still great, mainly due to the tremendous backing band, visuals and Byrne wearing a humongous suit at some point.

You also get a healthy dose of jamming and deviation from the original version of the songs performed. One of my absolute pet peeves of live music is hearing the song exactly as it was performed on record as it feels like it was a waste of money hearing a song you enjoyed performed just as you heard it. The band’s best remembered song “Once in a Lifetime” is far more enjoyable in this film with the backing vocals and wavy synths throughout. Another example is the outtake from the original film of “Big Business” and “I Zimbra” which are way more free-flowing live and way more experimental than the original recordings.

It’s thirty years old this summer and honestly, nothing has come quite close to it. Stop Making Sense is still the greatest Rock concert movie ever made and it will be some time before another film comes close.

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