By Elizabeth Gracen:
Three unique concert films from musical artists—each distinctive and unique, representative of the deep and wide well of excellence on the musical spectrum.
So much music. So much popcorn. What could be better?
In the second of this trilogy series of concert film reviews that close out my articles for Flapper Press this year, I scurry backward along the music-history continuum from the current pop glory of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour to a 1984 film widely celebrated as one of the best concert films in history, directed by the late great Jonathan Demme: Stop Making Sense.
It’s hard to believe that this groundbreaking film, seeking to share the visceral experience of a 1983 Talking Heads concert with audiences worldwide, will celebrate its 40th anniversary this coming year. Where has the time gone?
“I can’t seem to face up to the facts.” — "Psycho Killer," Talking Heads
The film's official (re)launch at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2023 brought the entire Talking Heads' ensemble back together in attendance, seemingly reconciled from their highly fraught split in 1991. The A24 production of this newly remastered 4K restoration for IMAX screens (with a Dolby Atmos version available for regular release across the U.S.) brings the glory of Talking Heads to a new generation of music lovers who will, hopefully, recognize the origins and powerful influence of the band and its enigmatic front man, David Byrne.
According to Variety, the film "has generated $5 million at the box office since returning to theaters in the fall" and "More than 60% of audience members were not alive when the film was originally released, so the majority of moviegoers are watching 'Stop Making Sense' in theaters for the first time.”
How cool is that?
“I love the passing of time.” —"This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," Talking Heads
Once again, with a tap of the AMC app, I’m headed down the street to one of my town's plethora of cinemas, popcorn pre-ordered to suit my fancy. And again, I’m the only person sitting in the front section of the theatre (my “private screening” trick of the mind fully coming to life) in my padded “rocker,” superb seating for the heavy-duty chair dancing that will ensue for the next couple of hours. Once again, I am content, ready for a bit of musical time travel and the jubilant artistry of Stop Making Sense.
David Byrne arrives solo on a virtually empty sound stage to start the film, symbolic of the singular artist who will soon achieve genius once bandmates Steve Scales, Bernie Worrell, Jerry Harrison, Ednah Holt, Lynn Mabry, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Alex Weir gradually join him on stage. All the while, we see stagehands wheel in risers, backstage equipment, and instruments—the guts of the minimal production; a novel, artsy approach to a concert film in the early 80s. When the film finally expands to an even wider perspective for the final number of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” Demme finally reveals the rapt concert audience onscreen up on their feet and dancing. Everyone is moving, jumping, singing along, the connection between performer and viewer captured by the camera and locked in a live-music embrace of the moment, with the band in constant motion, Byrne running laps around the stage . . . my chair wildly rocking along.
Stop Making Sense is sparse in comparison to the multi-sense bombardment used by modern stadium performers on tour. Utilizing old-school technology such as rear-screen slide-show visuals, unfiltered lights, and no professional choreography (Byrne employed creative pow-wows with his backup singers for their simple dance moves, his own iconic twitchy movement influenced by Asian theatre and the avant guarde stage productions of Robert Wilson), the concert’s slow burn into a full-scale rollick still remains an intimate event.
Filmed over one rehearsal and three nights at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles during the Heads’ 1983 tour, Demme used six film cameras for each show in an attempt to capture the band’s unique energy and muscular performance. Even though the film has been released in a variety of iterations over the years for home video, critics have often noted the diminishment of the film’s original look and sound. For this latest, pristine restoration, the original film negatives, once thought lost, were discovered in the MGM film vaults and forensically cleaned and 4K scanned, giving the film that original filmic look.
Demme, in a move that was both novel at the time and essential to the current restoration's superior quality, opted to digitally record the sound. This decision granted the A24 team access to the undiminished soundtrack and allowed them to remix the audio and enhance the overall concert-film experience of the original recordings.
With a set list of funk, African, and polyrhythmic beats, the music builds into a frenzy through "Psycho Killer," "Heaven," "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," "Found a Job," and "Slippery People" to the MTV rotation favorites "Burning Down the House" and "Once in a Lifetime." With "Life During Wartime," "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," the Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love," and more, the film reaches a climax once Byrne hits stage in his familiar over-sized suit for "Girlfriend Is Better," "Take Me to the River," and, finally, "Crosseyed and Painless."
By the time the film’s credits rolled, I had rocked myself into oblivion, my hands raised, swaying back and forth, a grin on my face. There was no way to leave but satisfied, the hard work and blistering energy of the musicians and their fearless leader leaving nothing left unaddressed in their musical oeuvre. These were musical artists at the top of their youthful form, making unique music and burning down the house in the process.
Because I always sat center front for the film, I have no idea what those behind were doing. I actually heard someone laugh and whisper, “That’s the person in front,” as I happily walked out. Surely I wasn’t the only one rocking and chair dancing, but who knows? It doesn't matter to me. People gonna talk.
"Same as it ever was." —"Once in a Lifetime," Talking Heads