Stop Making Sense

David Byrne

Stop Making Sense (1984) is a concert movie featuring Talking Heads live on stage. Directed by Jonathan Demme, it was shot over the course of three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December 1983, as the group was touring to promote their new album ‘Speaking in Tongues.’ The movie is notable for being the first made entirely using digital audio techniques. The band raised the budget of $1.2 million themselves.

The title comes from the lyrics of the song ‘Girlfriend Is Better’: ‘As we get older and stop making sense…’ The movie begins with the opening credits, using a style similar to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (the movie trailer also makes references to ‘Dr. Strangelove’). Title designer Pablo Ferro was responsible for both title sequences.

Lead singer David Byrne walks on to a bare stage (seen from the feet only initially) with a portable cassette tape player and an acoustic guitar. He introduces ‘Psycho Killer’ by saying he wants to play a cassette tape, ostensibly from the boom box. In reality, the tick-tock drum machine was a Roland TR-808 played from the mixing board. During the song, the drum machine ‘fires’ machine gun riffs that causes Byrne to stagger ‘like Jean Paul Belmondo in the final minutes of ‘Breathless,’ a hero succumbing, surprised, to violence that he’d thought he was prepared for.’

With each successive song, Byrne is cumulatively joined onstage by each core member of the band: first by Tina Weymouth for ‘Heaven’ (with Lynn Mabry, originally of The Brides of Funkenstein and Parliament-Funkadelic, providing harmony vocals from backstage), second by Chris Frantz for ‘Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,’ and third by Jerry Harrison for ‘Found a Job.’ Performance equipment is gradually wheeled out and wired up to the bare stage between and throughout the performances, as Talking Heads continue to be augmented by several additional musicians, most of whom had extensive experience in funk: back-up singers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt, keyboardist Bernie Worrell (formerly of Parliament-Funkadelic), percussionist Steve Scales, and guitarist Alex Weir (of The Brothers Johnson).

The first song to feature the entire lineup is ‘Burning Down the House,’ although the original 1985 RCA/Columbia Home Video release (which featured three additional songs in two performances edited into the film) has the entire band (minus Worrell) performing ‘Cities’ before this song. Byrne also leaves the stage at one point, to allow the Weymouth–Frantz-led side-band the Tom Tom Club to perform their song ‘Genius of Love’ (The 1999 re-release of the film featured alternate ‘rap’ lines by Chris Frantz to remove the cocaine reference, ‘snow white,’ featured in the original release).

The movie is also notable for Byrne’s ‘big suit,’ an absurdly oversized business suit he dons late in the concert for the song ‘Girlfriend is Better’ (whose lyrics give the movie its title). The suit was partly inspired by Noh theater styles, and became an icon not only of the film but of Byrne himself. Pauline Kael stated in her review: ‘When he comes on wearing a boxlike ‘big suit’ — his body lost inside this form that sticks out around him like the costumes in Noh plays, or like Beuys’ large suit of felt that hangs of a wall — it’s a perfect psychological fit.’

The movie is notably different from many other rock and roll concert movies. It contains very few audience shots (and applause sounds are much less audible than usual) until the very end, during the performance of ‘Crosseyed and Painless.’ According to David Byrne’s comments on the DVD commentary, this is intended to enable the viewer to form their own opinion about the performance, which he hoped would be confirmed by the end sequence. The only other time the audience appears on film is during wide shots and whenever the camera is at the back of the stage. Also, Byrne wanted no colored lights to illuminate the performers. This led to some unusual lighting methods being used for each song. For example, In the performance of ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),’ the musicians perform by a standard lamp.

Byrne wanted as few distractions as possible onstage. Water bottles were not allowed, and most props were painted with a black matte to avoid reflecting light. An example of this are the Shure SM58 microphones used by Byrne and the other vocalists; the normally silver ball grilles have been replaced with matte black ones. Similarly, the labeling on the Prophet 5 and Emulator synthesizers was removed or obscured. Unlike many concert films and videos which use ‘MTV-style’ quick-cut editing techniques, much of ‘Stop Making Sense’ uses lengthy camera shots to allow the viewer to examine the performances and onstage interaction. There are no close-ups of musicians performing guitar solos, rather full-figure or upper-body shots. The performance of ‘Once In A Lifetime’ memorably consists of a single chiaroscuro (light-dark) shot of Byrne performing his famous moves for the song for just over three-quarters of the duration. During many songs, especially early on, no attempt is made to hide or de-emphasize stage crew manipulating set pieces, bringing them on or off and setting them up, and at the end of the film Byrne invites the stage crew out to thank them to audience applause.

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