I must admit, I found that an odd direction for Byrne’s show to take, because those opening numbers, in which the band and the instruments assemble piece by piece, don’t just draw our attention to the music but to its specific parts. Nothing is ever stopping us from listening to a song and focusing on one element, whether it’s the drumbeat or the backup vocals, but Byrne’s constructionist approach encourages us to deconstruct the music, and it’s a thrilling experience. But for me some of that enthusiasm for the music is lost in all the antics that come after it, because, again, I see those as more about performance. And, don’t get me wrong, performance is a worthy art form in its own right. But the problem with Byrne’s choreography is that once our attention is focused on that performance, it’s somewhat difficult to see—or, more accurately, to hear—beyond it. And whereas so many pop stars try to illuminate the themes of their songs—usually far too literally—Byrne’s antics are abstractionist to the point that Mick Jagger’s signature electrocuted rooster strut almost seems expressive of something more than raw energy by comparison.
If this makes it sound as if I dislike Stop Making Sense or Byrne’s staging, well, that’s not the case at all. And I think Demme does a fine job of capturing the music almost in spite of Byrne’s entertaining distractions. But if Woodstock is really about community and Gimme Shelter is really about tragedy, I think this film keeps the streak alive of music films that aren’t really about music. This is about performance. Am I right?
EH: I don’t think so. Or, perhaps more accurately, the performance aspect is so intimately tied to the music that they nearly become the same thing. Rather than distracting from the music, to me Byrne’s antics are an intrinsic part of the music. His jittery motions, his outsized persona, his nerdy enthusiasm and high-energy calisthenics routines: it all seems to feed into, and equally to derive from, the music itself, to the point that the music and the motion surrounding it become inextricable. It’s hard to separate the music—jumpy, spastic, a bundle of raw nerves and ironic sentiments—from Byrne’s persona(lity). It’s true, the opening four or five songs, where our attention is turned to each individual element of the music one instrument at a time, represent a pinnacle of musical deconstruction that’s hard to top. But I don’t see the rest of the film as a letdown so much as a natural continuation of that initial buildup. When Byrne is jogging around the stage or dancing with a floor lamp, sure, it’s performative, but it’s also very attuned to the rhythms and even the thematic subtexts of the music. Byrne’s music, with its anxious rhythms and lyrics that are alternately desperate and yearning for happiness and peace, is a kind of nervous breakdown for suburbia. Much of the stage show in Stop Making Sense reflects that aspect of the band’s music, suggesting minimalist home spaces floating in the darkness, or surreal slogans glowing neon like bizarre corporate logos.
There’s a thin line between performance elements that distract from the music, and performance elements that simply enhance and inform the substance of the music, and for me at least, the shows captured in Stop Making Sense generally fall on the right side of that line. Sure, by the end of the film it’s all devolved into a frenzied tent revival atmosphere where the music seems like the least important thing going on—particularly when Byrne, in a gesture that’s equal parts touching and showman-like, invites the stage hands out for a bow—but much of what happens before that is minimalist enough that the music is simply enriched by the little nuances of Bynre’s geeky non-dancing or the stage props. In fact, considering how much the Talking Heads’ music is about polyrhythm and syncopation, I’d argue that all the dancing and running and jittery motion merely adds another layer to the shifting percussion of the music: Byrne’s rubbery neck pulsing in time with the beat emphasizes the dominance of the rhythmic elements in this band. (And if there’s any question about how crucial Byrne is to both the music and the spectacle, check out how boring both become during the brief interlude when he cedes the stage to the Tina Weymouth/Chris Frantz side project Tom Tom Club.)
So, yes, Stop Making Sense is certainly about performance to some degree, but it’s about performance intimately wedded to music and meaning, rather than simply an empty spectacle.
JB: It’s certainly not “empty spectacle.” Furthermore, you make a great point about the way Byrne’s overall energy syncs with the music, even if each specific gyration is essentially meaningless (and, while we’re here, I agree that Byrne’s presence is missed in the Tom Tom Club interlude—a quirky ditty that I delighted in for about 15 seconds before wishing it would end already). The fun thing about watching Byrne’s antics is that as much as they justifiably inspire the question, “What is he doing!?” they also inspire the question, “Well, what else would he do?” Whether it’s because too many music stars mindlessly imitate their idols or because certain music actually inspires specific responses, each music genre tends to have its own rules for physical representation. Metal rockers slam their heads, flip their hair and grimace. Rappers strut and pose. Pop musicians do graceful, choreographed dances. Country musicians do whatever they can do while wearing a cowboy hat and boots and wrangling a big guitar. But the music of the Talking Heads doesn’t fit neatly into any box, and so it’s fitting that Byrne’s choreography doesn’t either. And so in the big picture I guess I agree with you: Byrne’s physical interpretations of his songs actually help us to understand the music itself.
In that way, watching this film made me think of another music group with a hard-to-classify sound: OK Go. This is a group less known for their music than their YouTube-sensational music videos, like the one for “Here It Goes Again”, in which the group does a choreographed routine on treadmills, or the one for “This Too Shall Pass”, which features a gloriously goofy Rube Goldberg machine. It would be tempting to dismiss OK Go as a gimmick, but instead I wonder if they’re visionaries of Byrne’s caliber. In our discussion of Gimme Shelter, we appreciated the stage presence of Tina Turner, who seemed to so effortlessly enhance her music by unleashing her raw sexuality. But when you think about it, Turner had it easy. She could suggestively stroke her microphone—a hardly original move that she just happened to do more convincingly than anyone else. And so while I do think Byrne’s stage antics overshadow the music itself, I also admire that he’s willing to do the unusual to visually express a kind of music that has no automatic interpretations.
EH: I think that’s well-stated. The Talking Heads’ stage show in this film is so striking because it does distance itself from the traditional rocker poses, because Byrne isn’t afraid to be geeky—he even engages in some playful self-mockery when the backup dancers imitate his goofy, gangly running motions while dancing with him, gently poking fun at the frontman’s antics. Stephanie Zacharek, in the review cited above, says that moment also calls attention to Byrne’s white boy nerdiness in contrast to the soulfulness of the music he’s channeling, and I think there’s some truth to that as well. One of the subtexts of this film is the idea that the Talking Heads are (yet another) white band incorporating “black music” into their sound, whether it’s funk (keyboardist Bernie Worrell and backup singer Mabry Holt are both alumni of George Clinton’s P-Funk orbit) or soul or African polyrhythms or the increasing gospel tinges that enter the music towards the end of the show. The one-by-one introductions at the beginning also emphasize this aspect of the performance, as the band starts as an all-white assemblage until, by the time everyone’s on stage, half the people playing are black. It’s an acknowledgment, perhaps, of the band’s debt to the black music that informs their style, another indication that the stage show is deeply integrated into this music.
Anyway, I like your idea that certain types of music elicit a corresponding visual language, and it’s obvious that Byrne and the Talking Heads invented their distinctive visual language more or less from scratch, just as they had with their highly original sound. That’s a key difference, incidentally, between them and the example you cite of OK Go, who much like the White Stripes consistently marry clever videos to an overly familiar sound, with the White Stripes channeling classic garage rock and OK Go fitting neatly into the current fad for dance-punk and post-punk revivalists. The Talking Heads united visual and musical originality into a coherent whole; there’s a fairly small and select group of artists who can say the same.
Speaking of musical originality, and the lack thereof, maybe it’s time to turn to Rattle and Hum, Phil Joanou’s film about U2’s 1987 US tour. I’ll say right up front: I really dislike U2, and always have, which is a pretty big hurdle to clear in trying to talk somewhat objectively about a film that’s solely about them and their music. I bring this up because I think an important point about music documentaries is that, generally speaking, they’re viewed less as standalone films than as souvenirs for fans of the bands involved. Some music films attempt to stretch beyond this narrow purview, and we’ve already discussed how Woodstock and Gimme Shelter are as much about social context and ideas as the actual music—but at the end of the day, the viewer who doesn’t enjoy the music is missing a crucial part of the intended experience of the concert film. So Rattle and Hum was admittedly a tough slog for me, between Bono’s pompous posturing and the group’s bland, slick arena rock that seems designed to be belted out in baseball stadiums. I do have some more substantive comments about the film, too, don’t worry, but for now I’ll hand this back to you with a question: can a relatively straightforward concert/tour film like Rattle and Hum (or Stop Making Sense, for that matter, though that film at least is so visually inventive that I suspect it could wow even a Talking Heads skeptic) ever resonate with those who aren’t fans of the band being profiled?
JB: That’s a great question, and my answer sends me back to the beginning of this conversation. If one of the main motives of any concert film is to replicate the experience of being there, it only makes sense that one’s personal response to the music will largely dictate our feelings about the film as a whole (if the music itself is the main attraction, that is, which is truer in these latter films we’re discussing than in the cases of Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, in which the music is a secondary part of the “experience”). This can be true of dramatic films, too, of course. If you’re turned off by blood and suffering, for example, you’d struggle to appreciate horror, or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. If you don’t like musicals or dancing, you’re going to find West Side Story torturous. In those instances, filmmakers are attempting to deliver and/or otherwise conjure something that the viewer happens to find nauseating (for you, in this specific case, that would be Bono and U2). The more successful the filmmaker is, the more uncomfortable the viewer becomes. At least, that’s the potential. As you’ve indicated, there might still be room to recognize or appreciate the artistry of the filmmaking itself, but enjoyment and/or other forms of emotional connectivity would be close to impossible, much the same way that from a public relations standpoint I admire the excellence with which Fox News implements its agenda while at the same time being turned off by that agenda.
Having said that, I think it’s revealing that you think Stop Making Sense is “visually inventive” enough to “wow” Talking Heads skeptics, with the unspoken implication that Rattle and Hum doesn’t achieve the same. For me, both films are in the same boat. True, the clever constructionist beginning of the Talking Heads concert provides that something extra that takes the pressure off the music itself, so that someone not fond of the Talking Heads’ music would have something else to appreciate. But beyond those first five songs, I don’t think the filmmaking or the band’s stage antics are so compelling that they would overcome a significant distaste for the music. And if someone found Byrne’s all-eyes-on-me dance moves and curious wardrobe changes to be “pompous posturing,” they’d be right where you are when watching Bono and the rest of U2 in Rattle and Hum. So while it’s accurate to say that the Talking Heads concert is more visually inventive in terms of concert staging, what that observation overlooks is that Stop Making Sense never strays from the stage, whereas Rattle and Hum isn’t so confined. By saying that, I’m alluding of course to shots of the band’s various offstage wanderings, from Harlem to Graceland, but also to the film’s use of multiple concert venues, from that tranquil chapel where the band sings “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with a church choir, to the chaotic Embarcadero Center in San Francisco where the band performs on the back of a flatbed truck, to Sun Devil Stadium in Arizona, where the film breaks from black-and-white to capture the throbbing energy of a generic arena setting in dark, moody color.
Full disclosure: I like U2, and most of this music specifically, and on top of that I once worked in an office connected to Sun Devil Stadium that I can see in this film’s dizzying helicopter shots. So in my case Rattle and Hum pulls some strings that produce some nostalgic responses. Recognizing that, no, I don’t think this film is a major triumph of its genre, nor is it the kind of thing that would likely convert a U2 skeptic—though I suppose it could. (I’d say the same thing about Stop Making Sense.) But what the film does do well is portray the spirit of a U2 concert, for better or worse, the same way Gimme Shelter presents the unique energy of the Rolling Stones. It also shows how the band’s music can be both intimate (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with the choir, or “When Love Comes to Town” with B.B. King) and, yes, “slick arena rock.” And, perhaps most interesting of all, in its brief tangents from concert footage it gives us a glimpse of a foreigner’s view of American culture circa 1988 that I think is too easily written off as fluffy insert footage. I don’t want to imply that the offstage stuff in this film is profound, or that it’s anywhere near as compelling as the action around the music in Woodstock and Gimme Shelter. Not by a long shot. But it’s worth asking: What does it tell us about America—never mind U2—that two of the must-stop locations on the band’s tourist itineraries are the shrines to Martin Luther King Jr., and Elvis Presley? Again, it would be inaccurate to call Rattle and Hum a profound film. But if Woodstock and Gimme Shelter are culture films, in addition to music films, I think Rattle and Hum is, too, even if it’s a one-calorie version of those rich classics.
EH: At the end of the day, you’re right, Rattle and Hum may have more in common, in general terms, with Stop Making Sense than not, even if the U2 film does often venture beyond the concert stage. And my appreciation of the Talking Heads—I’ve never been a huge fan, but I like much of what they do and respect their originality a great deal—would make Stop Making Sense automatically more palatable than Rattle and Hum regardless of other cinematic factors. Rattle and Hum, it must be admitted, is competently made and does a decent job of blending together footage of the band offstage with songs performed in concert. As you say, it also attempts at times to stretch beyond the music and incorporate cultural context from the band’s tour of America.
I wonder, though, about the purpose of these diversions. Several times the film creates linkages between U2 and other musical and cultural heritages, with questionable effect. When the film dissolves from a Harlem street performance (by a black/white duo apparently known as Satan and Adam) to U2 performing “Silver and Gold” in concert, is it meant to suggest a spiritual and musical connection between these mega-selling pop stars and street-corner buskers? I get a similar sense out of the clumsy attempts at synthesis between U2’s slick stylings and the more soulful sound of B.B. King or a gospel choir. Later in the film, a snippet of Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” leads into “Bullet the Blue Sky,” as though Bono’s preachy, self-righteous speeches are as powerful a political statement as Hendrix’s simple act of deconstructing his country’s national anthem. Again and again, the band, and the film, seem to be suggesting that U2 is deeply connected to American culture, and more specifically to black culture, but to me there’s something shallow and superficial about U2’s attempts to evoke the deep feelings of blues and gospel. The fusions never seem organic, as the gospel segment especially proves: U2 does its thing, and then the choir does its thing, and there’s very little overlap between the two halves of the performance.
Probably the most damning scenes in the film center around the band’s transparent attempts to associate themselves with Elvis Presley, first by playing in Sun Studios with Memphis session players, then by visiting Graceland itself. At Graceland, the filmmakers dissolve from a photo of Elvis on his motorcycle to drummer Larry Mullen posing on the same motorcycle and talking about how much he idolizes Elvis, and how he wishes that Elvis’ grave wasn’t at Graceland, presumably so he could concentrate more fully on the kitsch and empty-headed hero worship without any more complicated emotions getting in the way. The motorcycle scene is a pretty amazing example of a celebrity sense of entitlement, as Bono keeps cajoling and prodding some poor staffer to let Mullen pose on the bike, something which is clearly strictly forbidden. But Bono’s charm and irrepressible sense of privilege eventually win out, and the staffer gives in with a weak caveat that no pictures are allowed—and even that is obviously a broken promise considering the footage winds up in the film. It’s amazing that the band (and the filmmakers, who don’t seem to be out to critique the musicians in any way) apparently thought this scene reflected well on them, that they weren’t embarrassed to be seen as the privileged pop royalty they are. What’s weird about the film at moments like this is that, though the filmmakers aren’t criticizing U2—indeed, the film is often overtly reverential—they do provide all the ammunition necessary for detractors. I guess that means the film is honest almost in spite of itself, or that its attempts at propaganda wind up backfiring.
JB: That’s a fair assessment, and what’s interesting about it is the way your feelings about U2 affect your feelings about the filmmaker’s intent. When we discussed Gimme Shelter, you had no doubt that the Maysles brothers knew they were showing that the Rolling Stones were at least partially responsible for the violence at Altamont, even though the film seems mostly sympathetic to the Stones (rightfully so, I think). But in this case, because you distrust the sincerity of U2, you question whether Joanou, and the band, are aware that this film might portray them in a way that is honest, yet unflattering.
I can’t help pausing here for a brief tangent: Just yesterday I happened to buy Chuck Klosterman’s latest book of essays, Eating the Dinosaur. The recurring theme of the book is truth and illusion, and so it’s packed with Klosterman’s meditations on what it means when our idea of truth proves incompatible with reality. (I recommend the book if for no other reason than that Klosterman writes about, and in the first case interviews, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, and in doing so he touches on some of the subjects we argued about in previous editions of The Conversations.) In one essay Klosterman suggests that one of the reasons American society is so dominated by irony is because we’ve become so comfortable with lying. “To varying degrees, almost every new cultural invention is built on (a) an overt suggestion of partial dishonesty or (b) the universal inference that the artist must be lying, even if he or she insists otherwise,” Klosterman writes. “This is why we become so disoriented whenever someone tells the truth in a forthright manner; it always seems so ridiculous precisely because it is not.”