Poster for the rerelease of Stop Making Sense
While known for such iconography as David Byrne’s choreography and oversized suit, Jesse Pasternack reminds us there are many smaller moments of joy to be found in the Talking Heads’ concert film.
What can you say about Stop Making Sense (1984) that hasn’t already been said? Its reputation as the “best concert movie of all time” has only grown stronger in the 40 years after the Talking Heads’ concerts at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles which director Jonathan Demme filmed and editor Lisa Day assembled into this film. But when people talk about it, they tend to focus on the same couple of things. They talk about the big moments, like the memorable performance of “Burning Down the House” or Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s instantly iconic big suit. But when I think of Stop Making Sense, as much as I love those moments, it’s the smaller ones that I find to be more interesting and rewarding. The more I revisit it, the more I view it as a mosaic of little moments which, when taken together, present a portrait of joy and creativity.
Stop Making Sense begins with Byrne walking alone onto a stage. He puts a portable cassette player onto the floor and, accompanied by it and his own guitar playing, performs “Psycho Killer.” A new member of the band (bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, guitarist/keyboard player Jerry Harrison) joins Byrne for the next couple of songs. The full band — which includes drummer Steve Scales, guitarist Alex Weir, keyboard player Bernie Worrell, as well as backup singers Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry — comes together to perform “Burning Down the House” and more songs. Some have argued that there is a type of plot (namely Byrne opening himself up to people by having more musicians join him), but it is also a pure concert film that presents the band’s performance in all of its glory.
Byrne performing “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” with Weir, Weymouth, Holt, and Mabry
A large part of why this film works is because of the way which Demme and director of photography Jordan Cronenweth filmed these shows. Demme noted that several of his films, like this one and Swimming to Cambodia (1987), were “performance films.” He described that subgenre as giving the best seat in the house to someone who can’t see a live show. But the wide range of perspectives that Demme and Cronenweth use throughout this film include many shots which are from the stage itself — you can even see one of the cameras onstage filming Scales in the back of one shot — which offer you a perspective that you could never afford. That perspective also gives the viewer access to many little moments which they would never see.
Some of those moments are pedestrian, like the crew moving things onto and off of the stage. But others are transcendent. One I always return to is Scales dancing before turning around to gleefully stick his tongue out at the camera. It’s such a delightful moment that you would never get to see otherwise because his back is turned to the audience. By filming it, Demme and Cronenweth turn a fleeting moment that would be forgotten into an iconic expression of the fun you can find in performing.
One of the things that I love most about the little moments which are littered throughout the film like confetti are that I keep finding more of them every time I revisit it. There’s always a new dance move, a new note, or a new glimpse of the audience (which is shown in the shadows for most of the film) that I had never seen before. My favorite one that I discovered on my most recent viewing involved the crew. For most of the film they are a model of professionalism, stoically going about their tasks with blank expressions. But when the band minus Byrne (who is backstage changing into his famous big suit) performs “Genius of Love,” there is a shot of Weymouth performing which has a view of the crew in the wings watching her. They all smile and dance as she performs. It’s a brief moment, but it gets at the appeal of Stop Making Sense — that it creates an experience so energetic that it can’t help but make you smile and dance along — in a direct way that is highly effective.
Stop Making Sense will always be remembered as one of the greatest concert films ever made. But while its reputation rests on its larger setpieces, it also deserves to be remembered for the many small moments which sparkle throughout it like tiny jewels. While the ones listed above are some of my favorites, there are dozens more for you to discover for yourself whenever you watch this film. I have a feeling that I’ll be discovering more and more of them, too, as I keep revisiting it throughout the years.
Byrne in Stop Making Sense