Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Kids Are Alright & Stop Making Sense

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Kids Are Alright & Stop Making Sense

Are concert films musicals? In a sense, sure. Woodstock usually gets classified as such. A Hard Day's Night, which combines more conventional musical numbers (and I use the term "conventional" advisedly) with a concert finale is easier to peg in that category. What about Gimme Shelter (which is possibly my favorite documentary of all time)? Doesn't it feel strange to classify a movie featuring a real stabbing as a "musical" with all the cheerful connotations that implies (however unfairly)? And is music really the focus of the Maysles' Stones documentary anyway? In a sense, though, concert films like The Kids Are Alright and Stop Making Sense can be considered more musical than most musicals. After all, they both contain wall-to-wall music accompanied by little else - about 90% music in the former case and 99% in the latter. Or maybe 100%. But they're both quite different from one another.


Perhaps ironically, since Talking Heads was born out of the punk movement, specifically CBGBs in the mid-70s, The Kids Are Alright feels more punkish than Stop Making Sense much of the time. It's assembled from bits and pieces of Who interviews, appearances, and performances over the years, strung together in a kind of loose stream-of-consciousness style rather than chronologically. Much as I'm a fan of chronology, this approach works here - it keeps the tempo and style varied, and reminds us both how much the Who transformed themselves during the thirteen or so years of the original line-up, and also how much they stayed the same. Stop Making Sense, on the other hand, limits itself to one (albeit elaborately staged) performance, with the artful hand of director Jonathan Demme orchestrating the cuts, lighting cues, and mise en scene, in collaboration with the band. Yet it too presents a transformation. Beginning with David Byrne alone onstage, strumming a guitar in time to a tape recorded beat and crooning, "Psycho Killer," the film ends with everyone onstage - a dozen or so band members, up from the original four of the 70s - to joyful proclaim the born-again lyrics of "Take Me to the River," followed by the fast-paced closer "Crosseyed & Painless."

A friend tells me that Byrne conceived the event very consciously as this sort of progression - from a figure in misanthropic isolation to one surrounded by joyful community. Whether or not this is the case, the concert does feel like it has a narrative arc, with plenty of variety along the way, from red backdrops emblazoned with random words to Byrne running around the stage like a maniac to Byrne standing in place jerking around as if powered by electric shocks to Byrne in an infamously oversized suit (later accompanied by a hilariously appropriate red hunter's cap.) Yes, no doubt, Byrne is the star here. That fact is highlighted when he briefly leaves the stage and the rest of the band becomes "The Tom Tom Club" to croon the tediously coy (and occasionally grating) "Genius of Love" - a kind of intermission from Byrne's narrative of a loner making friends (but remaining, nonetheless, a little crazy - perhaps they're only in his head?).

I noticed on this most recent viewing (I'd seen Stop Making Sense twice before, on the overwhelming big screen both times) how heavily the film is manipulated. Often we cut to something which, when examined carefully, couldn't have directly followed what came before - so the "show" is not as "live" as we might think. And more than a few times, Byrne's mouth didn't exactly seem to match the perfectly enunciated lyrics we hear delivered over the sound system. I don't know how much Demme and the band tinkered with the footage and the music after shooting (though such tinkering would hardly have been unprecedented - on "live" albums no less than concert films) but in a way, this kind of artifice is appropriate. Talking Heads floats on a kind of giddy, ironic yet earnest artificiality - a belief that, Frankenstein-like, they can turn their own alienation and unreality into something tangible and authentic. It's touching, really, and best demonstrated by Byrne's Buster Keatonesque frenetic stonefaced histrionics, which delivers the film to greatness over the objections to Byrne's sometimes too-cheerful (often in that cornball 80s way) fellow musicians (to be fair, wouldn't you be elated to be involved in this show?).

As for the Who, the kids are more than alright, to be sure. Introduced via a Smothers Brothers clip which is definitely post-dubbed, or rather pre-dubbed (except for Roger Daltry's nervous vocals), they appear also as master of artifice, of pose combined with vigor. They are defiantly "Pop", often overanalytically so as Townshend amply demonstrates, yet their Warhol stylings are tempered by a youthful brashness (in early clips they're a good decade and a half younger than Byrne & company in Stop Making Sense, teenagers really) and a ceaseless passion for musical sensation. If the Heads err on the side of control, the Who easily fall from their hyper-conscious perch into sheer abandon. Hence a band which, in its '65 heyday, prefigured the punk movement with its purposefully "sloppy" style and cooler-than-thou remove, had by the late 70s become a hard rock cliche, shooting gold records out of the air with Tommy guns (as John Entwhistle demonstrates in one hilarious sequence), getting soused with Ringo Starr, and indulging in long, long guitar solos.

But what solos! The sound is raw, rough, blasting forth from the stage, never boring. The Who transformed over the years, to be sure, but they always had many facets, as this documentary demonstrates. In part this is because, more so than any other band I can think of, each member had his own extremely distinct personality, all of which seemed to mesh effortlessly into a chaotic yet cohesive whole. So that even as Townshend is providing intellectual justifications for the Who's aesthetic journey, a maniacal Keith Moon is biting the guitarist's knee (causing Townshend, with his own wild side, to bash and bite back). Daltry, arrogant, forceful, often apparently humorless, gives the band its 60s narcissistic oomph while Entwhistle stands to the side, soooo fucking cool with his bored expression and statue-like stance, cutting mean basslines that dance in and around the sound.

The ability of the Who to be wild and free at the same time they're self-conscious, mystical one moment and satirical the next, long-winded and precisely pop in turn, is on evidence throughout The Kids Are Alright. But their duality is best demonstrated in one of the finest performances of any band ever captured on film: their scene-stealing presentation of "A Quick One While He's Away" at the Rolling Stones' Rock N Roll Circus in 1968. It's sickeningly good, mind-bendingly out of control and showy and over-the-top and thrilling and hilarious and awesome. Yet they never even step off the tiny stage which barely contains the four of them and at the end Townshend doesn't even smash his guitar! Though Moon does toss a drum...

The theatricality of these two bands finally serves as a reminder of one of the best reasons concert films may deserve classification in the musical genre (or, more fairly, why the musical genre might deserve to have them). At their best, concert films are as elaborately staged, as cleverly composed, as fantastically transporting as the most worked-out musical. Don't be too taken in by their image of raw, off-the-cuff captured reality. After all, as David Byrne sings in the final number of Stop Making Sense,

"Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don't do what I want them to."

But they do if you have final cut...

5 comments:

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

I read this post upon its publication but you guilt-tripped me into commenting now after your disappointment over discussion "drop off" in your Demille entry. Anyway, I'm a fan of both these films (and bands) but the very era (relative to Talking Heads' career) in which "Stop Making Sense" was produced forever casts it in a somewhat distasteful light for me; it's a concert captured after the band's prime, directly preceding their plunge into the commercial (you can read a VERY condensed depiction of this progression on my first Twitlist, published at the Powerstrip, which collects all my Talking Heads Twitter reviews). That having been said, the augmented band is fantastic (Bernie Worrell in particular absolutely smokes "Life During Wartime," and I actually greatly admire the infectious proto-rap of "Genius of Love") and the visuals as you say coax out the band's paradoxically authentic artificiality in a most trenchant fashion. Byrne tried the same thing himself with the fiction film "True Stories," a very interesting failure...with Pops Staples! And Spalding Gray!

Finally, you've probably already seen it, but my favorite concert film is, was, and may ever remain "The Last Waltz": there has never been a more mutually poeticizing film/music collaboration, and the performances rank with the finest The Band would ever manage. Not just a concert film, it's a celebration of rock's earthy roots (such as in a scene where Levon Helm and Rick Danko fiddle out "Old Time Religion" on a backstage couch) and spiritual magic (the sound studio segment wherein The Band and the Staples Singers belt out "The Weight" with Scorcese's crane shots swooping all about them has moved me to tears...but then, I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff).

MovieMan0283 said...

Ah, the guilt-tripping...always works. Then again, who am I to guilt-trip, as I've been perusing my blogroll rather erratically lately (I just finished re-reading all the posts I linked to on my year-end round-up, something I've been slowly progressing through since January, when I decided to do it.) Now, in turn, you've guilt-tripped me into visiting Bright Lights & Powerstrip, neither of which I've dropped by in a while (you reap what you sow...)

As for the review, the movies, and the bands...you should check out my earlier Talking Heads review, of the film/video collection Storytelling Giant, which contains some of my further thoughts on the band's relevance - and, indirectly, how it relates to their commercialism.

I am not very good at assessing the highs and lows of various bands because I tend to listen only to their early works and masterpieces, and nothing that came after (I totally dig Rolling Stones, Now! but couldn't tell you a thing about Goat's Head Soup, for example). Nonetheless, why do you feel Stop Making Sense is scarred by what came after? Do you consider Speaking in Tongues a drop-off, as it's poppier than their earlier work and was not produced by Eno? This may be true, but the songs are so damn good I have trouble holding that against them...

Man, I shouldn't talk about music right now, lest I get better...my iPod seems to have slipped into a coma from which it may never return...

MovieMan0283 said...

Also, actually I have not seen The Last Waltz. I've seen clips from it, and remember discussing it in my Rock N Roll Media class in college (a joke class, but fun; we suffered through Tommy which I can tell you was no Kids Are Alright...; I think it unfortunately soured several classmates on the Who permenantly, but I digress...). Specifically, its "legitimacy" as a concert film given an apparent preponderence of overdubs?

Did you see Scorsese's Stones film? I was so excited about it, thinking it would be a Brian Jones period doc much like No Direction Home. When I found out the truth, I was sorely disappointed and never saw it.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

I am not very good at assessing the highs and lows of various bands because I tend to listen only to their early works and masterpieces, and nothing that came after...

Ah, see now, that can be dangerous indeed. I have an obsessive compulsive tendency to acquire (which is not to say buy, ahem) the entire output of any artist I'm mildly interested in, just to satisfy my gnawing need to develop a definitive opinion (I once had a professor in college who felt the same way about writers, and wouldn't publish criticism on a particular author until he had read the entirety of that author's oeuvre). This lends itself to much unhappy messiness, I'm afraid, especially when the artist in question is prolific (Frank Zappa, Keith Jarrett, etc).

Nonetheless, why do you feel Stop Making Sense is scarred by what came after? Do you consider Speaking in Tongues a drop-off, as it's poppier than their earlier work and was not produced by Eno? This may be true, but the songs are so damn good I have trouble holding that against them...

In all honesty...yes, "Speaking in Tongues" in a drop-off, not because it's poppy, necessarily, but because too many of the songs are simply uninteresting to my ears ("Moon Rocks" feels like filler next to a lesser track off the preceding album, like "Seen and Not Seen"). Eno's departure may or may not have contributed to this, but there's no doubting that the band was far more intrepid rhythmically and sonically with him behind the soundboard. I also think the band's posture was far wryer and more elliptical before their post-"Remain in Light" hiatus. If you listen to the original recording of "Heaven," off "Fear of Music," Byrne sings like a man in the trance of Abraham's Bosom. In "Stop Making Sense" the same tune almost sounds like a romance. Perhaps it's the cynic in me but I much prefer the piss-and-vinegar aesthetic of even "love" songs like "The Book I Read" or aerial anthems like "The Big Country" to the ersatz clutter-funk of "Making Flippy Floppy" (although that song is fun).

I checked out your Storytelling Giant piece, too, which I much enjoyed, but I find your assessment of the band as quintessentially 80s slightly off the mark for some of the reasons mentioned above. Absolutely they became this with albums like "Little Creatures" (their nadir) and the near Duran Duran-ish "True Stories". But a fair counterpart to "This Must Be the Place" might be "Don't Worry About the Government," from their debut, a song that, rather than being the expected tongue-in-cheek critique of totalitarianism, is a sarcastic monologue of self-doubt against a comfortable municipal backdrop; it's not government you need to worry about, it's YOU. I think these two sides can be consolidated, however, and it would be fair to say that the frenzied paranoia of Talking Heads' early work is assuaged, in a way, by the peace they made with consumerism later on -- it's the only way they were able to write truly "happy" music, after all (even their biggest hit "Once in a Lifetime" is really about ennui and self-loathing).

Finally, wrappin' this puppy up, "The Last Waltz" does feature overdubs but as a rock and roll filmic experience (not a documentary) it's peerless. As I said before, my favorite scenes in the film are wholly artificial and stitched together from multiple takes, so that should tell you something. I never saw "Shine A Light" but wanted to. I have no outstanding beef with the current Stones, aside from the fact that their concert tix prices are highway robbery, and they haven't put out a decent album in 30 years, but hey...

MovieMan0283 said...

Joseph, great observations on the Talking Heads. In retrospect, my language was perhaps too universal with Storytelling Giant...the movie covers only their 80s period, since it's composed of music videos, so that certainly colored my reading of them. I think you're right in a sense about Speaking in Tongues (though Moon Rocks is pretty much the only track there I'd skip over). There's certainly less edge there, and it doesn't cohere as an album the way, say, Remain in Light does, though I still love the songs so much that I'm willing to forgive the tamping-down of adventurousness. I will have to check out that