Concert films, on the whole, are for the fans. Very few documentaries capturing the blood, sweat and tears of a vibrant performance do anything other than pay lip service to the diehard fans who will inevitably buy it on all formats available. But Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense is a little bit different.
Released on April 25th in 1984, the Jonathan Demme documentary captured David Byrne and Talking Heads at the peak of their powers. With a back catalogue boasting some of the finest new wave sounds and a house band ready to bring any abode to a crumbling wreck and you have everything you need for a perfect film.
That’s pretty much what the late, Demme got when he followed Talking Heads in their preparation for three nights at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre in December of 1983. Demme really should’ve been doing something better than following Byrne and Co. around.
The filmmaker had already put some rather impressive credits on his CV. Including horror stalwart Silence of the Lambs, Denzel Washington-starring film The Manchurian Candidate and many more. Instead, he was capturing what it meant to live and breathe your art and exactly how to put on the perfect show.
“Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities,” said David Byrne in a eulogy, posted after Demme’s death. “They became your friends, in a sense.”
Perfect shows must start with a perfect opening and David Byrne’s Talking Heads may well have nailed it with their stripped-back rendition of ‘Psycho Killer’ to open proceedings. Byrne jutting his neck out like a deranged chicken while a lone 808 plays the beat, it captured everything that made Talking Heads one of the best bands of the 1980s. Unique and utterly defiant, the band refused to conform to any rock and roll trope in front of them, especially on stage costumes.
It was at this show that Byrne debuted his now-iconic “big suit”, he said of the idea: “I was in Japan in between tours and I was checking out traditional Japanese theatre — Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku — and I was wondering what to wear on our upcoming tour. A fashion designer friend (Jurgen Lehl) said in his typically droll manner, ‘Well David, everything is bigger on stage.’ He was referring to gestures and all that, but I applied the idea to a businessman’s suit.”
As well as some incredible tunes, ‘Take Me To The River’ and ‘This Must Be The Place’ is a particular highlight, the performance also gave us that famous suit, Byrne’s eccentric dancing and the underlying feeling that the Heads were something very special indeed. Perhaps the clearest distillation of the band’s creativity working in tandem with Demme is following Byrne’s lone performance of ‘Psycho Killer’ he is joined by more and more members of an impressive band with every song.
It not only highlights Byrne’s vision being enacted but also showed how the band approached their live shows. Rather than the explosive spontaneity of punk, Byrne and Talking Heads were cultivated and curated, they were keenly placing easter eggs for us all to find, waiting for the joyous moment we as the audience stumbled upon a gem.
Demme must also be celebrated in this film. Talking Heads may well have provided the show for him to film, but Demme manages to bring us all into the fold, even looking back some 36 years later. Rather than give us an all-access pass to the backstage and intricate inner-workings of one of the most eclectic bands on the planet, Demme instead transports us into the middle of the crowd. Slap bang in the middle of the heaving, sweating and endlessly shuffling crowd.
Simply put, there is no better concert film than Talking Heads and Jonathan Demme’s iconic Stop Making Sense. Watch it below: