Stop Making Sense and the art of the concert movie

We explore a film that captures the mighty Talking Heads at their peak and is for many is the finest concert  movie ever made…

Is this the greatest concert movie ever made as some have claimed? That’s a tough question. It’s certainly one of the most unique. It’s also an expertly executed experience, a film that grabs you from the opening moments and never really lets you go. Whenever I watch I find that by the 5th or 6th song I’m gone; big smile, armchair dancing, under the spell. The first time I watched it (with some friends who sat me down as soon as I walked in and insisted I watch it when I visited them one night) was an experience. I mean an actual experience. It gobsmacked me good and proper, like I’d been smacked in the gob with a big audiovisual fist. Yes, that’s right, a big audiovisual fist.

The concept of doing a film came after Demme saw the band live whilst promoting their Speaking In Tongues album and was then introduced to them through a mutual friend. What Demme saw that night was essentially the exact same show as captured in the film, with Byrne starting solo and then over the first 7 or 8 songs being joined by each successive member of the touring band. As he later told Time magazine “The big suit, the lighting, the staging, the choreography, the song line-up — everything was there in the show before the filmmakers showed up.”

This was a band at the peak of their powers both creatively and as a live act. Speaking In Tongues had spawned the massive hit ‘Burning Down The House’ and critics everywhere were enamored by their neurotic, clipped funk-rock-pop sound and knowing art-house cleverness. At this time Talking Heads were right on the cutting edge, making original, fresh sounding, multi-layered music laden with killer hooks and infectious energy. However, as this film shows that energy was never more evident than in their live shows.

Even though Demme found a live show that was already fully formed he and David Byrne worked very closely on the look of the film. A number of important decisions were made that would contribute to the uniqueness and its distinctiveness from other concert movies. Firstly there would be no audience shots until the very last scene. The effect of this is one of almost giving the viewer a private viewing allowing, as Byrne intended, for people to make their own minds up about the show. It accentuates the artificiality of the film, and it’s almost as if the whole thing could have been shot on a closed set with audience sounds dubbed on. Demme actually wanted to re-shoot parts of the film on a closed set at one point but the band refused realising that they needed the audience to produce that kind of energy. The audience are crucial to the film but are implied rather than made explicit, heard but not seen.

Other innovations included eschewing the standard colored light scheme that most bands used in favor of stark white lights giving the film a very ‘naked’ honest aesthetic with each performer clearly visible throughout. There were to be no close-up shots of hands playing solos or head shots, but instead, lots of open long cuts of the whole band and very few quick edits, allowing the viewer to see the show as a whole rather than focusing on the details. Byrne also insisted that the stage set itself should contain no superfluities so water bottles were not allowed, logos on equipment were taped over, and black mics were used instead of chrome. Of course, we were allowed to see the crew bringing equipment on stage and setting up as the band is playing, something else which adds to the ‘nakedness’ of the movie.

Ultimately what Demme created was a film which allows the viewer to fully focus on the band, to be transported into their world for the duration of the show and it’s this the film does so well. From the moment Byrne arrives on stage with a boombox and tells the audience he has a song to play them to the final double whammy of ‘Take Me To The River’ and ‘Crosseyed & Painless’ you aren’t allowed off the hook for a moment. It’s a truly captivating work, the energy I mentioned earlier acting to keep you completely transfixed.

The star of the show is, of course, Byrne himself, who is almost never off camera. He shakes, twitches, pulls all manner of shapes, and displays a wonderful sense of his own physicality throughout. Then, of course, there is that suit, the over-sized business attire that he dons in the second half of the show that makes him look both bigger and smaller all at once. It’s almost as if he has shrunk rather than the suit has grown, and it has become a memorable part of the Talking Heads legacy.

I started by asking if claims for this being the greatest concert movie ever were correct. I’m not sure about that, but only because I generally object to anything being labelled so definitively. What I will say is that I can understand why people would say that. This is a movie that tends to blow people away when they see it, and as it did with me has the effect of turning someone who hadn’t paid Talking Heads too much attention beforehand in to a huge fan. I’ve never seen a better concert movie, let’s put it that way, and I’ve a feeling most people who’ve seen this film would tell you the same.

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