Stop Making Sense
(USA, 88 min; 1984)
Dir. Jonathan Demme
Programme: Special Presentations
I remember the early 1980s. I was a kid of the music video generation, obsessed with Chic-like pop from Duran, the slick soul of Prince and Michael Jackson, or the latest power ballads from Corey Hart or Bryan Adams. Yet the 1983 music video for “Burning Down the House” freaked me out as much as any horror movie. Visually, it was wild—almost nightmarish, a surreal sea of faces shifting into each other, and strange images of suburbia upended in apocalyptic fashion. More than that, it was the angular music and high-pitched vocalizing that I was unprepared for, a new wave of music that simply did not compute in my still-forming musical mind.
That video was conceived by David Byrne, the iconoclastic lead singer/guitarist for this strange troupe. Along with Bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, and keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, I was hearing the sounds of Parliament/Funkadelic and underground pop in ways I was unable to comprehend. In contrast, I adored the sweet sounds of “Once in a Lifetime,” unaware that the track emerged from the same ensemble. It was sweet and strange, poppy yet experimental. This band was the Talking Heads, and that fear would soon grow into fascination.
“House” appeared on the Speaking in Tongues album. It was during the tour for this record than an elaborate stage show, which started with a man and a prop tape player, would add ingredients until the stage was filled. The performance featured not just the four members of the Talking Heads, but also numerous collaborators, including Bernie Worrell from the P-Funk ensemble that helped give the record its sound bearing.
Filmmaker Jonathan Demme was tasked with capturing the images for posterity. Over the course of four shows as Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre, he and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, visual consultant Sandy McLeod, and many others, captured what is often regarded as one of the finest concert movies of all time.
From Pablo Ferro’s famous scrawl first seen with Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, through to Byrne’s jerky dancing in a giant suit more appropriate for a Sumo wrestler than a gangly kid who went to art college in New England, the images from this film are indelibly linked to both the era and the band. Through the film, the camera is ever probing, with almost every frame a possible poster shot. This is as much a visual triumph as an audio one. Over the last four decades, the reputation of Stop Making Sense has only grown stronger.
Thanks to a brand new restoration, the 4K presentation of which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival on the giant IMAX screen, the film remains nothing short of awe-inspiring. Previous home video releases have been sufficient to introduce its power to audiences who weren’t lucky enough to see the film during its theatrical run, but this, my friends, is a whole other beast. The assets were clearly in good shape, and everything from the banal monotone of the grey suits through to the electric reds that backlight the band later in the production, come across and almost psychedelic in their intensity.
The sound mix is also superb, a merging of the two disparate previous surround mixes that were on offer. There’s no better indication about just how dysfunctional the band has been over the last decades than the proof in having separate 5.1 tracks to choose from, showing that even this couldn’t be compromised.
At last, this brand new mix supervised by Harrison sounds like the definitive one. Blasted through the powerful cinema speakers, it was nothing short of glorious. At the TIFF premiere, the audience leapt up during several songs with the band members joining in (from seats separated by several rows, of course). I danced, as did Spike Lee a few seats away with the band members only a few feet past him, and it was glorious.
Some nits to pick – on that huge Cineplex Scotiabank 12 IMAX screen, the synchronization errors inherent in mixing four performances into one are more apparent, as the band traded metronomic perfection for groove and swing with each take. That’s a trade I’m willing to have been made, but the drum hits and guitar strokes that are slightly off-beat are a bit more egregious on a screen some six stories tall.
Bollocks to any fault – you could, if masochistic enough, watch the whole film on mute and still have an incredible experience. This is what makes Demme’s film so special, that it transcends a mere documentation of a concert and instead gravitates to something grander and more wonderful. This is dance and drama and drums and more, a synergy of sound and passion and costumes and cacophony that’s as electric as it must have been in that room all these years ago.
Yet thankfully, these moments were captured exquisitely for eternity, and done so in a way so engaging, so exceptional, that the cinematic result is no doubt superior to the live show played that day. With Stop Making Sense, you’re literally in the best seat in the house for every moment, whether you’re swinging around the singer like some misguided bird, or simply sitting back, still, watching all the members on stage absolutely crush it as they play.
Stop Making Sense is a masterpiece. The 4K restoration screened in IMAX an absolute must see, the restoration both definitive and delicious. While my tastes have evolved ever since that song freaked me out, here, all these years later, I was inspired to leap out of my seat and join fellow patrons dancing along with the crazy man in the big suit.
Same as it ever was? Hardly. For now, Stop Making Sense is even better than one could ever hope it to be, and the calibre of its presentation an even bigger miracle than the sight of all four band members sitting beside one another for a brief, magical evening of song, dance, and revelry.