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Stop Making Sense

October 24, 2009

I’ve liked the Talking Heads for a while now. They’re a peculiar yet intriguing band with some extremely good songs, but after watching Stop Making Sense my like has transformed into pure adoration and admiration for the band and more so lead singer David Byrne. It’s no secret that Byrne is pretty much bat-shit crazy from his eccentric dancing, vibratoing voice, and his alternative way of thinking (yes that is him interviewing himself). But there is obviously a method to his madness and brilliance under the assumed insanity and it’s seen through Stop Making Sense.

The film is purely a concert documentary yet its colorful way of unfolding and cinematography sets it apart from other concert documentaries and puts it in the rank as the best of its genre. Having been to numerous concerts (cough*Bonnaroo*cough) and having seen my share of concert documentaries none have compared to the engaging and whimsical show put on by the Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense. Byrne’s importance to the band is recognized when taking in to account his work on setting up the entire documentary and concert himself from lighting, sets, set list, the director of the documentary (Johnathan Demme), and even the choreography; Byrne proves how ahead of his time he was in the first few seconds of the film.

With only a medium close-up tracking shot on a pair of white shoes walking on stage, Byrne stops and announces he wants to play a tape for the audience and proceeds to hit play on a small boom box that he sits next to his feet. A pan up the white suit clad body reveals the lone David Byrne strumming his guitar to the sound of a drum pattern blaring from the tape player, thus starting an acoustic version of “Psycho Killer.” Byrne uses the entire unfurnished stage to his advantage during a closing guitar solo as he walks around the stage strumming away on his guitar. The beat from the boom box starts to skip and Byrne stumbles as if being physically affected by each skip and his strumming changes to accommodate the new beat before the music returns to normal as does his playing and strolling.

This gets repeated a few times as Byrne not only is showing off his guitar skills and concentration but also his knowledge of film as the stumbling invokes one of the greatest characters ever created for film Michel Poiccard of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. As Byrne continues his performance, stage hands are seen moving objects onto the stage and anticipation starts to build for the possible upcoming escapades. The anticipation is rewarded as each song that follows brings a new member of the band and more theatrics to the stage starting with one of the most underrated bass players in rock, Tina Weymouth for the song “Heaven.”

Drummer Chris Frantz is introduced with an intimately shot 360-view of the arena and stage during the song “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” followed by guitarist Jerry Harrison for “Found a Job” as more equipment is stacked on stage building anticipations higher. By the end of the next song the stage is completely transformed from its initial bare state to fully packed with gear, equipment, and band members complete with percussionists, additional guitarists, and back singers for the climatic performance of “Burning Down the House.” However there is no refractory period and the theatrics, dancing, and pleasure progressively continue.

One of the major elements that Stop Making Sense does better than other concert documentaries is its lack of reliance on showing the audience. Instead it makes the viewer of the film remember that they are the audience and by the 3rd song it’s almost impossible to merely sit and just watch. My first time (and each time after) resulted in me either dancing to the point of breathlessness in front of my television or at least bobbing my head incessantly and tapping my feet. The film’s use of close-up shots and tracking shots around the stage also work to submerge viewers into the concert experience as well as Byrne’s stage choices.

Though the stage is simple and almost underwhelming due to its use of plain white lights and black backdrop, different moods and tones are created merely with projected images and contrasting lighting setups seen during “Once in a Lifetime” when Byrne sports bifocals and is lit with extreme low-key chiaroscuro lighting giving himself and the stage an eerie yet omniscient appearance. Collectively the band’s energy becomes contagious as everyone on stage appears to be in sheer bliss with their instruments in hand and microphones in their face, each member dripping with smiles and sweat half way through the first set. The choreography becomes equally infectious as exemplified in “Life During Wartime’s” solos and costumes and an intermission for audiences to take in what they just saw and prepare for another dose all become appreciated when watching the film.

Stop Making Sense is simply appealing and engaging regardless of your musical taste. I played this movie during a party once and it had to be turned off half way through because so many people were anti-socially glued to the television in excitement and curiosity. And although many may giggle a few times at Byrne’s quirkiness by the end of the concert his insanity is respected. It’s a shame that he can’t bring himself to do at least one reunion with the Talking Heads but a rolling stone gathers no moss and at least there’s always Stop Making Sense.

SEE IT.

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