Yes Yes Yes. Obviously, “Stop Making Sense” is the best concert film ever made.
The production of the Talking Heads’ live show from 1983 is full of groove, charm and joy. The band, which has temporarily expanded from four to nine members, is on fire; tighter than tight, but not tightly wound. Frontman David Byrne exudes a captivating charisma, moving throughout the film from the nervous isolation of his solo “Psycho Killer” to the transcendent collective prayer of “Take Me To The River.” Lighting, rear projections and other visual effects bring out the precious uniqueness of each song without the musicians ever becoming part of their own story. It’s a tribute to director Jonathan Demme’s skill that he’s managed to capture the sweaty immediacy of a live show while making it look unlike any live show you’ve ever seen.
And so many moments! Byrne dancing with a lamp, the big suit, the playfulness of the Tom Tom Club segment, the funky genius of Bernie Worrell and Alex Weir, the heartfelt grins of the large family on stage…
Now the film is available on Imax and in a new theatrical release. So what else can we say other than look at him?
Well, you should see it if you haven’t already. But how you look at it deserves some consideration. Because as a historical document, “Stop Making Sense” is a work that not only deserves to be celebrated, but also to be viewed with elegiac sadness.
I am not referring to the fact that the band never toured again after the tour, which culminated in the shows filmed at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles from December 13 to 18, 1983 (although that still sad). I’m not even engaging in the argument that Talking Heads were “never that good again” (though they probably weren’t), given the varying quality of the three studio albums that followed Stop Making Sense.
However, I maintain that Talking Heads – and David Byrne in particular – have never been this interesting again. In fact, I would go further: by the time the live show was filmed, the band had already lost some of their edgy vitality. While we should celebrate “Stop Making Sense,” we should also mourn that it signaled the loss of something precious and unique about Talking Heads and David Byrne.
I admit it; It sounds like you’re scoring points that are outstanding. But there is something real at stake here. Since the band’s collapse in the late 1980s, Stop Making Sense has come to define the Talking Heads more than anything else (even the groundbreaking 1985 “Road To Nowhere” video no longer has the same resonance it once did). It was no surprise that when they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2002, the versions of “Burning Down The House” and “Life During Wartime” they performed were modeled after the Stop Making Sense versions. The current public attention to the film’s reissue is likely to reinforce the tendency to consider it the “definitive” Talking Heads album. And that doesn’t really do justice to the exceptionality of the band throughout their career, and especially in the years leading up to 1983.
It’s worth taking a look at a much less acclaimed Talking Heads concert film. Cinematographically it is of indifferent quality. There will never be an IMAX release. It’s not smooth. There are no interesting rear projections or surprising lightning effects. The production is downright terrible; There doesn’t even seem to be a drum riser. The musicians on this stage often seem uncomfortable with each other. And yet, in its own way, it is just as chilling and compelling as “Stop Making Sense.” In fact, on “The Great Curve” – a song not included in the 1983 film – they seem to surpass the highlights of their performance three years later.
The film is a television broadcast of the Talking Heads show in Rome in 1980 during the Remain In Light tour. The footage, along with another filmed show from Dortmund at the start of the tour, is an indispensable document of a bold time in the band’s history. By this point they had left behind much of the austere minimalism of their first album in 1977 and on their three albums recorded with Brian Eno – More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978), Fear Of Music (1979) and Remain In Light (1980s). years) – they had recorded some of the most extraordinary and innovative music of that time.
This creative purple patch also caused tension within the group. David Byrne began to resent the constraints of band democracy. His close partnership with Eno – which also resulted in their collaboration My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981) – increasingly pushed his three bandmates Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison to the sidelines. This led to a dispute over Remain In Light’s songwriting credits, which was never really resolved.
Byrne’s most extraordinary move, however, was the addition of Busta Jones as second bassist during the 1980 tour alongside Tina Weymouth. While the layered tracks on Remain In Light certainly required an expanded lineup (adding four musicians in addition to Jones) and it’s true that Jones’ funk bass added something new to the sound, it remains an act of unprecedented at best Callousness . And you can see how uncomfortable she felt on stage in the Rome video. Most of the time she seems frail and sullen, while Busta Jones dominates the bass sound.
Byrne may have come to dominate the Talking Heads as a unit, but in the Rome video he doesn’t dominate the stage like he did in Stop Making Sense. In fact, no one does. The band merged into one. They are somewhere else. Somewhere beyond. Everyone looks a little uncomfortable, Weymouth more than anyone else, but that doesn’t seem to detract from the spiraling transcendence of the performance.
When you compare the Rome show to Stop Making Sense, you come across a paradox: When Talking Heads were an awkward group of awkward individuals fighting for control, they came together to form something greater than the sum of their parts . But in the 1983 film, in which Byrne now takes the undisputed center stage, the band appears happy, relaxed and entertaining.
I have a theory here. I think that “Stop Making Sense” is actually a document of a band that gave up. Or at least Tina Weymouth.
One of the most striking aspects of the band’s early footage, before the expanded lineup and even before Jerry Harrison joined, is the almost frightening intensity with which Weymouth kept his gaze on Byrne throughout their performances. It’s not an easy look to decipher; a mixture of love, hate, awe and resentment.
Compare this look to the Byrne-Weymouth duo playing “Heaven” on “Stop Making Sense.” Here she exudes a certain calm, a kind of respect for Byrne, even if her anger towards him seems unbridled.
For Weymouth and her bandmates, “giving up” meant accepting that Byrne had become bigger than the band. Weymouth, Franz and Harrison had become Ringo – absolutely crucial to the sound and dynamics on stage, but destined to be tied to an extraordinary talent that could survive without them. While the Byrne-less Tom Tom Club portion of Stop Making Sense is an absolute delight, listening to any of their albums it becomes clear that Weymouth and Franz’s solo talents stop at the occasional nice single.
Perhaps Weymouth spent most of the show waiting for the moment to do the crab dance on “Genius Of Love.” In any case, she comes across as a professional, someone attuned to the demands of show business, a dedicated sidewoman hitching up to Byrne’s wagon.
Some critics have claimed to find a narrative in the film: an isolated and lonely Byrne finds relationship and joy, evolving from his lonely doll into a confident and ecstatic artist.
I don’t know if that was intentional; Still, it’s clear that Byrne was setting out on something new. Yes, he seems to exhibit eccentric oddities, but it is a tamed oddity. If you watch the Rome show and previous performances, you will witness the difference between genuine discomfort in one’s own skin and performative weirdness.
Byrne’s career after Stop Making Sense, both as part of the Talking Heads and as a solo artist, has distanced him even further from the otherworldly artist of his early career. His voice, once thin and emotionless, has matured into something distant; He’s quite the crooner now. And he inspires joy in what he does, and in his acclaimed show “American Utopia” he is explicitly concerned with making himself and his audience happy.
In later life, Byrne has spoken about his autism. There is a debate among autistic people about how much one should be expected to “mask” in a neurotypical world. Was the psycho killer the one who masked, or is it today’s inspirational crooner, or is it neither, or both? That’s not clear, of course, but there are certainly dangers in viewing Byrne as “redeemed” from the disturbingly alien artist we saw in his early career. In this respect, “Stop Making Sense” may not represent Byrne’s liberation but rather his assimilation (or surrender) into the world of the normal.
I think it’s rude to bemoan Byrne’s luck. And if Weymouth, Franz and Harrison accepted their status as Ringo to make Stop Making Sense such a wonderful thing, then I’m okay with that too. But I worry that when we remember Talking Heads in the 1983 film, we forget the band that played Rome in 1980; a band that, through a strange alchemy, transformed conflict and discomfort into something uniquely powerful.
A 4K restoration of Stop Making Sense is now available in select theaters