With the recent passing of Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, some of his classic films like “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia” are being rightfully remembered.
It should also be worth remembering Demme for his contributions to rock music and film. Not only did he direct the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” from the aforementioned film, he directed the Talking Heads concert film, “Stop Making Sense” (1984). It’s now unanimous among rock music and film critics that it’s one of if not the best rock music film ever made.
The film is a composite of footage filmed over two nights as the Heads performed in Los Angeles to promote their then-recent release “Speaking in Tongues.” The tour was based on a conceptual stage show that was the brainchild of lead singer and songwriter David Byrne. The show starts with only Byrne performing on acoustic guitar, then, as each song begins, more band members join Byrne on stage, until the stage is filled with the full nine-piece band and backup singers at the halfway point.
What makes this concert film so extraordinary is that it truly is a film in the classic sense. The other popular contender for “best rock film,” “The Last Waltz” (1978), has great performances and moments for sure, though it feels more like a documentary of a concert than a film.
“Stop Making Sense” has distinct characters, a narrative (of sorts), drama that rises and falls from song to song, and resolution. Jonathan Demme, as a director, makes several decisions that, in conjunction with Byrne’s stage show ideas, make for a unique experience.
For one, a conscious decision is made to not film any of the audience’s reactions or dancing to the band on stage. This was Byrne’s idea so as to allow the audience to form their own opinion of the performance and not feel patronized by being shown what their reaction “should” be.
The film is filled with several tiny but golden moments, little things that reveal a little of each musician’s character. A random nose scratch by keyboardist Bernie Worrell coupled with a particularly intense look on his face during a song implies so much. Guitarist Jerry Harrison dancing with the backup singers and waving his curly hair to the music shows his playful side.
And of course the wiry and energetic David Byrne himself is the lead character of the story. In the DVD commentary, he jokes that someone watching could get a full aerobic workout if they just copy his dance moves.
He also mentions that the overarching “story” of the film is how a square white guy gets his groove back. As thin a premise as this is, Demme and his crew should be given credit for at the very least presenting Byrne as a character going through distinct changes from song to song, all of which are funky as hell. The lighting alone on songs such as “Swamp” and “What a Day That Was” offer a depth that isn’t seen in a conventional concert movie.
While being a legitimately great concert film, filled with many of the Talking Heads’ greatest hits, “Stop Making Sense” is also a richly filmed and layered film itself, one that offers rewards with repeated viewings.