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Soundtracking: "Stop Making Sense"

This week, Chris Feil's series on music in the movies ponders the concert movie...

Who killed the concert movie? While the subgenre never reached the commonality of the music video, that particular form’s rise is timed right around the concert film’s demise. But perhaps it was just a form that seldom met the heights of “you are there” excitement or insight into the performer as Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads’s Stop Making Sense.

For such a distinctive visually-defined group as the Talking Heads were in music video form, Stop Making Sense remains their defining document. As much as David Byrne is the creative spearhead of the band and that radical rebellious sound, Demme’s insight is what makes this more than just a filmed event or way to see a popular band if they skipped over your town. If a concert is a singular way to live in the full experience of a performer and their sound, Demme takes that to the next level by dropping us in the middle of this creative unit.

Like most of the director’s work the film begins with one character and expands its eye to whatever comes in their orbit, and the same build happens here with the sound. It all starts with Byrne a boombox on “Psycho Killer”, solo on stage and true to the everyman at the center of their lyrics. The stage slowly multiplies with band members until the crescendo of sound gives us the one-two punch of “Slippery People” into the megahit “Burning Down The House”.

Our place in communities is a major theme for the Talking Heads, and Demme’s filming subtly plays with that. Byrne’s iconic and everygrowing suit turns the scrutinized middle American ideal into high art, but the stage becomes its own family unit - and one of Demme’s often forgotten cinematic ones, at that. They build this house only to burn it down and rebuild it over again, revealing different sounds and therefore different shades of the band’s musical identity that can’t be easily defined. The Talking Heads are basically one of the most complex Demme characters, and the director is as eager as ever to understand them even if they are nonfiction subjects. His ears remain his most curious sense.

Part of what immerses us in the Heads particular aura is that Demme seldom features the crowd, whether in our shadowy sightlines or in the sound mix (the first to be done completely in digital). It’s less like we are in the audience than we are plopped right into the band’s headspace. The real magic of what the director captures here is that he makes us feel like we are living the music with them, we’re invited to participate in what they perform for us. Occasionally, Demme shows us the pulling of the behind the scenes strings or the crowd’s cheers get mixed with our own, reminding that this is all a production and not just for ourselves - this community continues outward.

But it all lives in the glow of that glorious sound, the waves of joy it carries us on. What makes any concert such a unique experience is that it distills the artist and their music into something we can hold in our hands, a perfect moment only to be suddenly gone and never created again exactly as we lived it. Demme understands both this relationship between act and audience and a way to push it past the limitations of the stage. Like how a concert brings the music alive to an album that will always sound the same, this feels like a living document compared to even Demme’s other concert films.

Stop Making Sense
is something more, like a perfect musical evening that the real world couldn’t produce, but a spiritual one might.

Stop Making Sense plays BAM this month as part of the series Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold.

Previous Soundtracking Favorites:
The First Wives Club
Young Adult
A Mighty Wind

A Bigger Splash

Blue Velvet
but all installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (5)

I've seen this on screen 3 times I think. Each time, the audience literally turns into a dance party. That's how good this movie is. One of my all-time favorites.

August 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCorey

One of the best films I had ever seen. It is just non-stop entertaining and the music just makes it so exciting.

August 9, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

The Heads' live version of "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)" from this movie is one of my all-time favorite songs. A fabulous film, time to see it again.

August 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Yes, a wonderful film. Such a great band, at the height of their powers. And Demme's direction... Wow...

I was lucky enough to see it in the cinema in 1999, in London, followed by a Q&A with David Byrne. During the film, the audience had danced in their seats and applauded after each song.

Time for a rewatch.

August 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

David Byrne went later to win an Oscar (shared) for his work in "The Last Emperor", and I can't help thinking he should have been multinominated by that fantastic musical that is "True Stories", one of my faves of all time.

August 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

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