Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - Stop Making Sense (#89)

The Favorites - Stop Making Sense (#89)

My video on Neon Genesis Evangelion and Twin Peaks, which was supposed to appear on Monday, is finally up.

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Stop Making Sense (1984/USA/dir. Jonathan Demme) appeared at #89 on my original list.

What it is • An empty wooden stage, a shadow falling across it, applause faintly emerging on the soundtrack...David Byrne (lead singer and songwriter of Talking Heads) suited up in that distinctly post-counterculture hip-to-be-square kind of way, with a mixture of modesty and bravado, informs the eager (as yet unseen) crowd, "Hi. I've got a tape I'd like to play you." He presses a button on a tape player which provides the only backing track as he stands solo in the theatrical lights (in front of an audience politely seated) and stabs his guitar with the focused ferocity of a psycho killer. And there it begans - nearly non-stop music for 88 minutes as Byrne is gradually joined by various bandmates, from bass player Tina Weymouth to the rest of the original members to some backup singers and supporting musicians. By the end, the crowd is on their feet, the atmosphere is electric, and Byrne is dripping sweat after running in circles around the stage, dancing with a lamp, bending backward almost 180 degrees, and clothing himself in a ridiculous baggy jacket making him look like a child swimming in daddy's business uniform. This concert film to end all concert films - directed by Demme, but conceived and orchestrated by Byrne himself - obviously structures itself around the escalation of activity and accumulation of personnel. However, it also features an increasingly focused and fantastical style. The film begins with pseudo-documentary approach, cutting frequently to depict the crew hustling in the wings while haphazard wires, unhidden ladders, and exposed cameras and lights emphasize the technical details. Two-thirds of the way in, immersive, stylized performances, against a black backdrop, alternate close-ups with very long takes (like the one which captures almost the entirety of "Once in a Lifetime"). Ultimately, Stop Making Sense provides perfect evidence that even non-narrative films can have a strong story arc.

Why I like it
I've always admired Stop Making Sense's structural conceit and stylistic ingenuity, but those fell into the background on this viewing as I was simply swept up in the sheer energy of the film. Much of this is down to Byrne's performance of course, as he gyrates, shuffles, and stares down the lens, disappearing into his own private world of trancelike immersion. But the film is also expertly engineered: only in this viewing, my fourth or fifth, did I notice how Demme and Byrne orchestrate our closer involvement with what's happening through camera angle, set design, and cutting strategy. Drawing us closer in a fashion similar to Laurence Olivier's Henry V, Stop Making Sense initially goes to great lengths to remind us we're watching a self-consciously composed performance (the music emerges from a tape player, and even in the second number there's an offstage singer we never see) but by about halfway through, we've fallen under its spell. Like Henry V, Talking Heads and Demme eventually withdraw from close contact and leave us with images of the stage, the crew, the audience, and even the cameramen - but by now the performance seems less like an artificial, clever art show, and more like a genuinely rapturous rapport between artists and audience. Anyway, here I am analyzing the details again; I love the film simply because I fall under its spell: it just makes me smile. My favorite number is probably the daffy yet sincerely romantic "Naive Melody (This is Not the Place)" in which Byrne coos to and cradles an elegant lampshade with the panache of a postmodern Astaire.

How you can see itStop Making Sense is available on DVD from Netflix. A clip from the film is featured at 1:40 in "The Weird Eighties", Chapter 25 of my video series. I offered a full-length review of the film back in 2009, paired with a look at the Who documentary The Kids Are All Right. And one of my first reviews for this blog covered the Talking Heads music video compilation Storytelling Giant, which features some of the songs from Stop Making Sense.

What do you think? • What's your favorite concert film? Do you count concert films as musicals? What's the best musical number in Stop Making Sense? How do you relate to the structure, and what other films does it resemble? Are there noticeable similarities between Stop Making Sense and Demme's narrative works? What do you think of the late eighties Talking Heads film True Stories, if you've seen it? Does the chronology of Stop Making Sense (arriving after the Brian Eno-produced albums, during a shift toward poppier material) affect your response to the film, positively or negatively? To what extent is the film shaped by the emerging MTV aesthetic of the period? Do you see the film as capturing a stage performance or creating a purely filmic experience - or somewhere in between?

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Previous week: Cria Cuervos (#90)

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