Stop Making Sense, Start Asking Questions – How Talking Heads set the bar for concert films

David Byrne, smiling and shaking with sweat drenching off of his clothes, peers into the audience with his renowned blank stare. “Thank you, does anybody have any questions?”, he says. I have a few questions for Talking Heads, and lead singer David Byrne is the subject of many of said questions. His vibrant tenacity on the stage when performing the numerous hits the band provided us with is one of many cogs in the incredible machine that is Stop Making Sense. But how it works so well raises many questions. How does it manage to set the bar for concert films? Why is Byrne wearing that massive, grey suit? What exactly is the aim of Talking Heads here as they blast through their now critically acclaimed setlist? Whatever the answers, it seems Stop Making Sense struggles to give us the straight story.

Directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), the concert follows Talking Heads as they perform four shows at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre, to promote their fifth studio album, Speaking in Tongues. Stop Making Sense has become an acclaimed concert film, praised by the likes of the great Roger Ebert and music essayist Robert Christgau. Pioneering efforts of both the director and the band lead Stop Making Sense to become one of the earliest and crispest sounding live shows, thankfully receiving its own standalone album release. The innovations of the director and cast lead Stop Making Sense to new heights, the likes of which have never been seen since.

Byrne and the rest of the bands actions on the stage are deep-rooted in French new wave cinema, the Japanese art form of Noh and smattering nods to Joseph Beuys. Iconic suits, killer songs and one strange promo interview in which Byrne interviews himself, Stop Making Sense breaks the barrier between concert and performance art. Talking Heads are able to command the stage in a way that no other band before (or after) them has done. Their strange and perplexing aura on stage isn’t cheapened by throwaway shots to the crowd, nor does it linger on one particular member of the band. Demme provides us with a balanced piece of film that showcases the talents of a rising band, but also gives them enough wiggle room to try some unique and creative decisions.

Opening with an acoustic, solo rendition of Psycho Killer, Bryne stumbles around the stage to the sounds of a beatbox, imitating Jean-Paul Belmondo from the final moments of Breathless. He blends it into his performance well, and that’s a certainly difficult task to accomplish. A crowd whooping and cheering as he loses his balances, pulling himself back together at the last moment to continue playing. There’s never a moment where the velocity or absurdity of the performance overtakes the charms of the lyrics or the cleverly crafted bass lines that linger through Once in a Lifetime. Byrne’s iconic, oversized suit provides ample confusion, but doesn’t take away the feverish, foot-tapping enjoyment of Girlfriend is Better. Sprinting around the stage merely adds to the high-octane energy of Life During Wartime, it does nothing to harm the music itself.

I can think of no other concert that provides considerably different and unique performances of already written songs. Aside from the rare outing of an extended version of Live Bed Show by Pulp, no other band has provided such an array of alternative song versions quite like Talking Heads does here. Maybe that is the sole reason for setting the bar so high, how a song can sound so different to its studio version, even better at times, is one of the reasons it manages to create such a unique atmosphere.

Acoustic versions of both Psycho Killer and Heaven, an inebriated high of Once in a Lifetime and a classy performance of Thank You for Sending Me an Angel.

Stop Making Sense, then, is a culmination of unique songs, dabbles of performance art and a march into a specific and bold image Talking Heads holds as artists. Beautifully directed, perfectly performed, that’s exactly how the bar is set for the pinnacle of a concert performance.

 

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