From an early age, we’re trained from media osmosis to expect, and to celebrate, performers who lord their power, their status, and their entitlement over us. We celebrate, with a certain degree of self-loathing, these peoples’ transformations from regular Joes to the icons we’re raised by TV, magazines, and movies to want to be. The Talking Heads—David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison—have a more centered, settled sensibility, one that somehow still doesn’t compromise the energy we expect and want from a good rip-roaring concert. In Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads put on a show that revels in a smaller, more personal, self-actualization; it’s about rock stars learning to dominate themselves as opposed to others, to fit into a wider-reaching society that they accept as baffling, uncomfortable and joyous.
Stop Making Sense doesn’t feel self-conscious and “good for you,” though it is good for you. You feel frontman Bryne’s pop bliss. Bryne’s a parodist, a prankster, who happens to believe in everything he parodies, and he’s inviting you to the party, which begins with just him and a simulated boom box while performing “Psycho Killer,” and gradually grows to include the entire band, as well as another community of musicians of varying backgrounds, as they all work their way toward songs that have now become a taken-for-granted part of our shared pop-cultural tapestry. Byrne’s theme, and his empathy, meshes with the theme of many of director Jonathan Demme’s other pictures: life as a fleeting, varied ride of odd little things, too texturally varied to invite self-pity. Bryne, especially in “The Big Suit,” is a potentially dwarfed white man who finds catharsis in everything.
Stop Making Sense is a concert film with a narrative, bursting at the seams with bits of invention and passion: the Pablo Ferro titles, the dancing light, the “Big Suit,” Japanese Noh theater conventions, etc. Bryne’s irresistible conceit is that you’re privy to the birth of his band, as well as their mutual transcendence as they grow and lose themselves in their camaraderie and obsessions. Byrne has a tall, loose-limbed, underfed build, with a poker expression that could either be a smirk or a smile (or neither), and a high David Lynch kind of voice that invites irony: a presumed geek’s postmodern revenge against years of being seen as the “other.” Bryne is too playful for that, he’s moved beyond grudge and tedium and humiliation: He peddles a rock fantasy of acceptance and self-satisfaction, and he has the physical grace, even (or perhaps particularly) in that suit to take the fantasies beyond the maudlin. Byrne embraces small artifacts—movies, music of all genres (jazz, funk, African tribal), casual objects—that can be our unexpected saviors.
As in Demme’s recent Rachel Getting Married, momentum is itself a character in Stop Making Sense. Bryne and the rest of the Heads build and build, about to explode and always exploding seemingly at once. The Talking Heads give us a disarming sense of privacy unusual for the concert movie that’s accentuated by the decision to more or less exclude the actual audiences in attendance (this doc was filmed over three shows). There’s a vibe of a half dozen people dancing privately in their bedrooms on cue, finding their grooves, enthralled with a private power that the populace also happens to miraculously find appealing and transformative.
Stop Making Sense taps into the desire that probably drives the creation of most art of most kinds: to create that thing that makes you relatable. There’s a number of images in Stop Making Sense, particularly one near the end of “Found a Job,” with Byrne, Weymouth, and Harrison dancing out of sync…in sync, that have a communal poetry. Stop Making Sense, like other Demme films such as Melvin and Howard or Something Wild or Neil Young: Heart of Gold, can make you feel giddy in a way that you associate with movies you watched as a child. You feel the pleasure of people who know better engaging in a delirious foolishness, and you surrender, which is exactly, of course, what the title was telling you before you walked into the theater or pushed play.
The Stop Making Sense Blu-ray is a shrewd balance of expected high-def upgrade and more old-school loyal preservation of the original presentation. The picture is vivid, with all the blues and blacks and reds and whites in sharp harmony with one another, while maintaining some of the grain and grit that gives it an unpolished vinyl-era charm. The audio, as has always been the case (it was the first to use entirely digital techniques), is immersive and stunning, playing more of a role in Jonathon Demme and David Byrne’s illusion of audience implication than many may at first realize. Tina Weymouth, at one point in the press conference, notes the careful alternating of audience reaction between the side speakers, symbolically placing you dead center in the show.
There are the usual: storyboard-to-film comparison, bonus tracks, a somewhat disappointing commentary with Demme and the band, with everyone appearing to have been recorded separately and edited together in post-production. (If that isn’t the case, that still gives you an idea of the vibe: four lone voices.) Interesting bits are still offered, especially by Byrne, who is generous toward Demme: Noting that the director, in the film, treats him and the other performers as "characters in ensemble film," which is dead on. More interesting, and bittersweet, is the full-length press conference from the film’s 15th anniversary release in 1999. The panel opens as most celebrity interviews centered around a long-accepted classic tend to, with the good-humored stars probably a little weary of the same fawning questions. As the piece wears on though, we get a sense of the friction that’s said to have broken the band up, particularly of the other members’ disenchantment with Byrne, who eventually seems a bit indifferent and divorced from his own party. This 70-minute extra is a more revealing-than-usual glimpse into the conflictions and resentments of a now iconic act. There’s a quick, shade too-cute, promotional item from 1984 with Bryne interviewing himself, but beneath the broad caricature is a succinct, direct summary of what the singer-songwriter was up to. This mock interview is less elusive than most supposedly "straight" EW/Entertainment Tonight sidebar items.
This Blu-ray preserves the integrity and beauty of the documentary with extras that provide context without over-explaining or sentimentalizing the illusion.