Of the many concerts that have been turned into movies, TV specials, DVDs, VHS tapes, and such, few have stitched themselves into popular culture the way Stop Making Sense has. The film’s director, Jonathan Demme, died at age 73 this morning. While Silence of the Lambs is the piece of work accompanying his name in headlines, and deservedly so, it will be Stop Making Sense that college kids, and artists, and anyone whose feet can be moved to dance in a movie theater will still be watching generations from now.
The 1984 film was recorded over four nights in late 1983 at the Pantages. The first kinetic image is the shadow of singer David Byrne’s acoustic guitar swinging into frame. We follow Byrne’s feet to the stage as we hear an unseen Hollywood crowd cheering. “Hi,” Byrne says, his face still not visible, just a pair of feet standing before a microphone, “I’ve got a tape I want to play.” Byrne lowers a cassette player into frame, hits play, and begins tapping his feet to the opening beats of “Psycho Killer.” Only after the music begins does the camera shift its focus upward to reveal Byrne’s guitar, and then, finally, a full two minutes into the film, we see the lead singer’s bewildered face. Behind him: an empty stage. The message is clear. The star of this film is the music.
Well, sure, you might say, the star of every concert film is music. Yes, and no. There is music in every concert film, but seldom is music ever presented to us with such reverence. Byrne, who created the stage show, and Demme, who masterfully captured it, were clearly of the same mind. When Demme first saw the show, he called it a movie waiting to be filmed, no doubt noticing the narrative arc Byrne had created.
It begins on an empty stage, just Byrne, one guy, in relative calm. Throughout the show, musicians, and props (like the lamp) are added, along with with choreography (jogging, but fun jogging), and a major costume change (the REALLY BIG suit). All of the singing, dancing, and running around build to a tent revival frenzy, and the higher power they worship is the god of song. “That you could throw something completely new at an audience, and they would accept it, that for me was an incredible feeling,” Byrne said. If you connect that instantly with an audience, it probably means you’ve tapped into something universal and heretofore improperly or never expressed.
The documentary is lauded for its long beautiful shots, which allow the viewer to get a sense of each musician, as well as an appreciation for every beat that occurs during the show. The director of photography was Jordan Cronenweth, who was fresh off Blade Runner. This is about as far from MTV as you could get in the 1980s. The musicians don’t look into the camera while performing, except as a goof. “We didn’t want any of the bullshit,” Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone.
But it’s not enough to say, “We love music.” Most musicians love music, even if it looks like they’re birthing a Nissan Cube while performing it. Stop Making Sense resonates because of what the film reveals about music. The film revels in its joyfulness. It is a fun reminder that musicians “play” music. Music does not have to be a grim death-march towards fame, record sales, rehab, and a forgettable Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame concert. Music is supposed to be a form of play, and it can be received in a playful spirit. Stop Making Sense is the visualization of how music has the ability to fill our souls with rising, spasming joy.
On paper, that’s corny. Which is why someone as talented and ambitious as Demme was needed to take the idea “music makes people happy” and make it look cool, a little punk, and even revolutionary. The comedian Dana Carvey once described rock guitarists as guys who look like a dogs scraping their butts on the driveway. Back when non-conformism was something we looked for in our musicians, the most nonconformist—and honest—statement a musician could make onstage was “music is fun.”
When Byrne returns to the stage for “Girlfriend is Better,” he is wearing a giant suit, a choice inspired by Japanese theater. It is so large that he appears lost in it. It’s the most memorable sequence of the film. The suit allows for comical choreography and trippy visuals, but it also immediately brings to mind the idea of putting on a suit every day, and not knowing what the hell you’re doing—feeling lost in it. Isn’t life supposed to be, you know, fun? It’s a sort of recreation of the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime.” There are not many concert films that have you up in the aisles dancing (as people did when I first saw Stop Making Sense at the New Beverly) while also questioning your career path. Demme, speaking for many of us, told Time, “I love this movie passionately with all my heart.”
The title of the movie comes from a line in the song “Girlfriend Is Better.” “When we get older, and stop making sense…” These are words spoken by a young person who is aware that he will be corrupted by age, acknowledging a coming sadness. During the performance of “Girlfriend is Better,” Byrne—in his big suit—turns to a lighting guy from the film crew and puts the microphone in his face, and the lighting guy sings “stop making sense” into the microphone like, yeah, that’s just a perfectly natural thing for a lighting guy on a film crew to do during a concert. It’s the moment when the movie achieves a seamless integrity, as the music, lyrics, the band, the stage, Byrne, the big suit, and the creation of the film itself harmonize.
You don’t have to get older and stop making sense, if you don’t want to.
Joe Donatelli is the Senior Writer at Los Angeles magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @joedonatelli and Facebook. He wrote The Story Behind the Most Inescapable Billboard in Los Angeles.