This feature originally ran in October 2014 and is being re-published today in honor of the late Jonathan Demme.
It’s the 30th anniversary of Stop Making Sense, the multi-platform masterwork from Talking Heads. To commemorate the flurry of incredible content from a band and a director in peak form, Consequence of Sound is revisiting the landmark movie and its soundtrack album in a roundtable discussion. Qu’est-ce que c’est?
Blake Goble (BG): Is Stop Making Sense the most innovative concert film ever made? There have been plenty of great concert movies capturing bands in peak moments: Shine a Light, The Last Waltz, U2: Rattle and Hum, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. All top-shelf shows on film. Yet, none of them use the cinematic medium like Stop Making Sense.
Instead of simply sticking cameras on Talking Heads, the band collaborated with the then up-and-coming Jonathan Demme for something still ahead of its time. This is a staged and choreographed event, combined from several shows, filmed and edited specifically for theaters. The plot is the performance. There’s no pause for self-congratulatory band banter, sweeping wide-angle power shots, or enraptured audience imagery. Each song gets denser, as band members join with each song. Every song’s a staple in the Talking Heads’ catalogue. Stop Making Sense is like an 88-minute crescendo, a growing art project that gets more intricate and exciting as it progresses.
Guys, you ever seen a concert film like this? Will we ever again? Does any other concert film have a calling card like David Byrne’s goofily large, white business suit?
Ryan Bray (RB): Seeing as no one has really dared to try something as ambitious as Stop Making Sense, much less outdo it, over the past 30 years, it’s probably safe to assume that the film will continue to exist in its own sort of rarified air. I remember knowing the Talking Heads and liking what I’d heard from them (namely Remain in Light, which I’d borrowed from a friend and ripped to CD in high school), but it took blocking out two hours to sit down and watch Stop Making Sense to turn me into a true Heads fan. There was just no way you couldn’t after watching it. I quickly rounded out my Talking Heads library with 77, More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music and, of course, the Stop Making Sense soundtrack itself.
Having recently re-watched it, I think what really makes Stop Making Sense so great is that the Talking Heads really were the only band who could’ve pulled that off. In just about anyone else’s hands, the film would have been a stretch, but for them it just seemed like the perfect thing to do. I’ve always looked at the Talking Heads as one big conceptual art project, where visuals play as intricate a role in the band as the music, so doing a concert film just feels like something that’s right in their wheelhouse. And to your point, Blake, I agree that the thought, care, and precision the band brought to the project, married with Demme’s expert directorial hand, completely lifts the film beyond standard concert movie fare. The way it’s shot so as not to let the crowd’s reactions influence the viewer, combined with how the band uses the performance and set list to create a narrative, makes for a top-shelf viewing experience. And yeah, the big suit? What else needs to be said? David Byrne = legend.
Len Comaratta (LC): Well, I guess I’m the one who’s going to piss in everyone’s corn flakes. Stop Making Sense is a great film and most certainly a great album (well, the reissue is, not so much the original, but I’ll tackle that in a bit), but it is not the best concert film. For that honor, my money goes to The Band and Martin Scorsese with The Last Waltz.
BG: Gotta throw faint praise at the lovely, but flawed Last Waltz here. It’s a poetic work, yet it’s held back by Robbie Robertson just bloviating about the band’s farewell … oh, and how’d Neil Diamond get in there? If push comes to shove, I’d back SMS as the ultimate concert movie for the same reasons you guys like it. It’s just so much purer and innovative than the rest. But I digress.
LC: I first became aware of Talking Heads from their video for “Once in a Lifetime”. In the days before MTV, I would get my video fix in the space between movies on Showtime. In between trailers and upcoming features, the channel would often fill in the emptiness with videos, two of which, the aforementioned Heads’ and Pretenders’ “Message of Love”, opened my world just a little bit wider.
Is SMS innovative? Most certainly. The complete minimalization and deconstruction of the concert stage setting is beautifully articulated throughout the entire performance with bits and pieces – be they scenery, props, performers – being added back in a little at a time. It is four songs before the entire band is onstage together, and even then more players stream out onstage, such as Parliament-Funkadelic founding member Bernie Worrell or Brothers Johnson guitarist Alex Weir.
Cut together using footage from three nights, the seamless nature of the direction and performance adds to the magic, giving the illusion that it is all one performance captured live. A lot of the style and approach to filming lies with Demme, who at this stage in his career had left behind the exploitation cinema he started in the early ’70s and was deeply in the middle of an arc that saw him doing mediocre comedies. It was still a full seven years before Clarice would silence her lambs.
As a concert film, hell, as just a film, SMS wins on many fronts – as entertainment, experimental theater, musical performance, or an exercise in deconstruction. Where the experience failed was with the release of the soundtrack. The original soundtrack only used nine of the 16 songs performed and presented them not only extremely edited down, but also in a jumbled order, thereby eliminating Byrne’s meticulous planning and presentation of the music in a particular order. Songs excluded included “Crosseyed and Painless”, “This Must Be the Place”, “Heaven”, and even the Tom Tom Club performing “Genius of Love” (all of which blow my mind!).
Though Byrne had the intention of the soundtrack being an entirely separate experience, the logic behind what was originally left off is perplexing, especially considering that Tina Weymouth, the second band member to hit the stage following Byrne’s solo performance of “Psycho Killer”, comes on during “Heaven”, which is absent on the original release. Hell, Chris Frantz’s drumming is mostly absent from the original album. This of course was all remedied in 1999, when the album got a complete overhaul and re-release on its 15th birthday. The reissue by far makes up for any missteps caused by the original. Whether it was the band or the label behind the release, I don’t know, but a double album couldn’t have been too far out of the question considering the band had already released a live double album in 1982 with The Name of the Band Is Talking Heads.
BG: Oh, I’m about to show my naiveté here, but I took that nine-song soundtrack as authoritative for the longest time. I didn’t actually get a chance to see SMS till college. High school was the oughts for me, and I inherited an extensive CD collection from my brother that’s 11 years older than me (RIP mail order music clubs and Tower Records). The soundtrack was in his stash, and yeah, I know now that it was a butchered effort, but I still really enjoyed the hell out of it. Talking Heads sounded so good live, and “Psycho Killer”, “Take Me to the River”, and “Once in a Lifetime” easily crossed the 100-play mark on iTunes.
Full disclosure: I’m the worst with concerts. Like, not just in that I panic at them, but I’d rather hear a band fully mastered the way they want to be heard. As an actual movie soundtrack, this still sounds better than most concerts to me, likely because of the intricacy and artistry that came with the staging. It sounded like an alternative, but equally potent variation on great songs, no audience cheering necessary. In that respect, it’s an indelibly unique soundtrack.
Having only recently scored the reissue, now realizing what an immersing experience SMS is, yeah, I was blissfully ignorant.
RB: To switch gears and talk about the soundtrack, I get where Len is coming from. Especially if you came to the soundtrack after first watching the film, it’s a bit of a letdown, even if the performances are really great. Even when they extended and resequenced the record in 1999, the record feels a bit incomplete without the visuals to compliment it. Stop Making Sense, as strange as it might sound, is the rare record that needs to be seen to be heard, or at least fully understood.
That said, if you haven’t yet seen the film, the soundtrack stands up a lot more on its own two legs. Forgetting about the film for a moment, the soundtrack is a tight, well-produced document of the band hitting their commercial peak. A lot of my personal favorite Talking Heads songs are represented, from the stunning guitar ballad “Heaven” to fan favorites like “Once in a Lifetime” and ” Burning Down the House”. Even others that I didn’t totally get into in studio form jumped out a little bit more at me, like “Girlfriend Is Better” and “Found a Job.” I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but what do you guys think? Can you guys divorce the film from the soundtrack and vice versa, or are they a package deal? Are you able to appreciate one without the other?
LC: I certainly think that both can be appreciated and enjoyed independent of each other, but that said, a lot of times a soundtrack is bought as a means of reliving the visual experience. With this album, that can’t be done, at least not with the original release. And to be honest, it is only on the DVD, which has two extra tracks, that you even get near the full set list. Yes, these are great renditions (with or without the original drums), and the addition of the funk musicians just raises all of these songs up to a whole other level. My questions are more aimed at the logistics of how and why the album was designed so poorly, when obviously time and thought went into the visual aspect of the event. It’s almost like going on a vacation to Europe and coming back and showing people a handful of Polaroids out of context and expecting them to feel the same way you did when you took the shot.
BG: True, but what if the Polaroids had a man in a large, white business suit?
Admittedly, both items are great, but objectively, the album’s choppy, and there’s just no touching the movie.
Most “innovative” rock docs feel gimmicky at best when compared. U2 3D, is well, just a 3D concert. The Beastie Boys’ Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! wears its novelty right in the title.
RB: What about favorite moments? Ar there any scenes from the film that really stand out to you? We’ve already made worthy mention of Byrne’s big suit, an iconic cinematic image if there ever was one, but are there any others? Personally, I love how it opens. The tracking shot of Byrne’s feet, the plain-spoken declaration of “Hi, I’ve got a tape I want to play,” and the slow reveal of Byrne at the mic performing “Psycho Killer” really sets the table for the quirky, inventive concert experience that follows.
BG: Oh, my goodness. Favorite moments are really favorite tunes, aren’t they? But seriously, it’s “Once in a Lifetime” for me because of its simplicity. You’ve got a bespectacled Byrne onstage, lit with what looks like a single light from downstage left, performing for a nearly five-minute-long medium shot. Concerts don’t get the multiple takes of movie productions, and it feels like Demme really wanted to gracefully, patiently reinforce that by focusing in on Byrne just sing-talking his heart out in what’s arguably the band’s most popular song. The film’s all about staging but performance too, and this is SMS’s purest moment.
RB: Good call, Blake. I’d also add “Life During Wartime” as one of the standout performances from the film. The song itself is great, of course, but what really jumped out at me was how physical a performer Byrne is. Watching him move like some sort of elastic man at the mic, his legs and hips seemingly working independently of his upper body, was pretty impressive. Just another example of how the film helped give the band a third dimension that gets lost on the soundtrack itself.
LC: I think I”ll just end with me saying that “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” is my favorite Talking Heads song, and I am glad that it got its due on the reissue, but I think my favorite part of the film is the first half, where the set is slowly, almost casually built up, watching with a slight anticipation of what is going to happen next.