Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense returns to theaters to remind us it's still the greatest concert film

click to enlarge Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense returns to theaters to remind us it's still the greatest concert film
Forget home — in an IMAX theater playing Stop Making Sense is where I want to be...

Is there another movie overflowing with as much pure, distilled joy as Stop Making Sense?

The 1984 Talking Heads concert film, newly remastered and back in theaters (including on River Park Square's IMAX screen), is often cited as the high water mark of its genre. And for good reason. It's a film of perpetual movement, combustible chemistry and unadulterated excitement — a shot of serotonin that gives you the contact high of being at the show itself.

Stop Making Sense was filmed as Talking Heads were ending their tour supporting the 1983 album Speaking in Tongues, and it was stitched together from footage taken at four consecutive shows at Los Angeles' Pantages Theater. Director Jonathan Demme, then best known for the 1980 comedy Melvin and Howard, had apparently seen the band in concert and approached them about the idea of making a film, and they financed its production themselves.

Up to this point, concert documentaries were primarily straightforward affairs — put musicians on the stage, point the camera at them — with the exceptions of Michael Wadleigh's epic Woodstock (1970), which used pioneering split-screen techniques, and Martin Scorsese's elegiac The Last Waltz (1978) depicting the Band's final, star-studded concert. But Stop Making Sense immediately announces itself as a different kind of concert film, and that's because Talking Heads were a different kind of band.

It opens with frontman David Byrne strolling onto an unadorned stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a boombox, and he launches into a stripped-down, electronically inflected version of "Psycho Killer." With each new song, Byrne is joined by another Talking Head — first bassist Tina Weymouth, then drummer Chris Frantz, finally guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison — as pieces of the stage are pushed out on wheels. And then the backing band is gradually filled out, one member at a time: backing vocalists Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry, guitarist Alex Weir, percussionist Steve Scales, and Parliament Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell on keyboards.

This conceit crescendos with "Burning Down the House" when the full nine-person band has coalesced, and it's also (appropriately) when the movie truly ignites into a glorious four-minute blaze of energy. Demme and his cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who was fresh off photographing Blade Runner, rarely let their attention wander from the stage; there are hardly any shots of the audience, and no interstitial interviews with the band members.

They also don't get in the way of the performances with distracting filmmaking tricks, but each song in the setlist gets its own simple but effective artistic treatment. "Making Flippy Floppy" is accompanied by large projections of words and body parts. During "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)", the band is illuminated by a single living room lamp. "Once in a Lifetime" is performed in an unbroken take that never leaves Byrne as he lets the music possess his body. And, of course, there's the now-legendary oversized suit that Byrne dons during "Girlfriend Is Better," which swallows him up in a rippling sea of fabric.

Talking Heads represented the ultimate marriage of brainy experimentation and hook-driven dance music, and with Stop Making Sense, they pushed the Warhol-esque concept of rock show as art installation to its most logical and entertaining extremes. But there's no cold intellectual distance to the performance here. They're having a blast. This is a great, groundbreaking band at the height of their powers and the peak of their stamina. The way their hyperactive dancing suddenly synchronizes while they're playing "Life During Wartime" is one of those simple moments of transcendence that few other films deliver.

Byrne was often framed as the sole pilot at the controls of Talking Heads, and certainly his eccentricities and fascinations defined the band — he's like an android reporting on everyday human behaviors and customs. But he doesn't hog the spotlight in this film, and everyone gets a moment to let their personality shine through, including Weymouth and Frantz when their side project band Tom Tom Club plays its hit "Genius of Love."

Byrne's solo shows continue to be high-concept marvels, and his Broadway show American Utopia itself received the concert film treatment from Spike Lee in 2020. But Stop Making Sense still reigns supreme, the high water mark that every other concert film will forever be measured against. And if it's re-released in another 40 years, it will still be the best. Same as it ever was. Same at it ever was...

Expo '74: Films from the Vault @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 8
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Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the former music and film editor of the Inlander. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.