I went to Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense in the local art house cinema armed with exactly four of their songs and tales of its legendary Ambassador Theatre run in Dublin thirty years ago. My friend came armed with none of the above, only a spare ticket I had and curiosity. What we got was above and beyond the price of the ticket.
Talking Heads were a new wave post-funk rock band, fronted by David Byrne, with Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison making up the rest of the band. Released in 1984, the Jonathan Demme directed concert movie was recorded over three nights in Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre (leading to a couple of amusing continuity mistakes, such as the bass player’s guitar changing between shots).
Jonathan Demme is most famous for directing films like Philadelphia and The Silence of the Lambs. I haven’t seen these, but if they’re half as well directed as Stop Making Sense it’s fair to say we have a master on our hands. Great direction and concert films are rarely put in the same sentence, but Demme’s style left such a deep imprint on the film that it set a standard for all concert films to come. Instead of using rapid-fire shots from multiple angles, Demme often leaves the camera trained on the performers for long shots that range from a minute up to four and a half minutes (considering the average shot length of a Hollywood film is 3 to 5 seconds).
Not only that, we hardly ever see the audience, bar approximately five short shots near the end and the occasional shot of the stage in which someone’s head gets in the way. Audience reaction is a key part in most concert films, so why does Demme voluntarily leave it out? I think it’s because he realises that when we watch a concert film, we don’t really care about the weeping fan-girl with an “I LUV YOU DAVID” t-shirt and the “TALKING HEADS FOREVER” banners. We care about the performance, and by making the audience invisible Demme makes us feel like we’re actually there, cheering on our favourite band along with everyone else.
But we hardly notice these long takes and lack of audience shots because we’re so hooked by the sounds we’re hearing and the pictures we’re seeing. The bands voice is unique, blending rock with world music and funk, but they sound less produced, more natural and more powerful live. Demme inquired with the band if they’d do extra shooting on a set that looked like the theatre as a fall-back, but they declined, saying the lack of an audience would damage their performance. Dead right. The band is made up of exceptional musicians and performers (special credit to Tina Weymouth on bass and Chris Frantz on drums, who’s combined percussive sound drives the majority of the songs), but in the end it is David Byrne who really shines through.
Byrne is one of those musicians who everyone knows is fantastic but is always conspicuously absent from top-ten lists. While Byrne lacks the appeal and finesse of Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant, he makes up for it with pure energy. Most of the time he spends on stage is running around, waving his arms and shimmying about like he’s got an electric current running through him, but he does all these things with all his might, and when comparing David Byrne with many static pop performers who barely move away from the microphone, he’s an atom bomb of an entertainer.
Not only that, but Byrne was also responsible for some of the concert’s best set pieces, as well as the brilliant use of light. The opening credits play over a white screen, then a pair of feet appear to the cheers of the audience and we realise we are looking at the floor of a stage, lit by a single floor level light. The camera follows the feet to a microphone, where a voice says, “Hi, I got a tape I want to play.” A cassette boombox is placed down and the play button is pressed. The feet tap along to the recorded drums, then the camera tilts up over a hand strumming “Psycho Killer” on a guitar, up to David Byrne’s wide eyed face. Fiction or not, this is a prime example of character introduction in a movie. And save a drum machine being played off stage, Byrne is completely alone, and yet he’s captivated the audience into complete silence and made the band’s signature song even better than the original! The rest of the band appear one song at a time until they’re altogether for another highlight song, “Burning Down the House”, and throughout the film they are often lit by single lights, making for some fantastic use of silhouettes and otherworldly underlighting in songs like “What A Day That Was” and “Girlfriend is Better” (this song is famous for Byrne’s Big Suit, an immensely oversized suit which, apart from being very quirky, helped throw large shadows). The most extreme case of this single light set up is probably “This Must Be The Place”, another signature song, in which the only source of light is a typical household lamp (which Byrne memorably dances with).
But I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the single highlight of the entire movie is the band’s rendition of “Once In A Lifetime”. This is the big one. The song that even non-Heads-fans love. The camera starts trained on keyboardist Bernie Worrell, then whips down to a side-lit Byrne, jerking and twitching like he’s being shot, and he raises his hands and preaches to the audience about the simple mysteries of life, like “How did I get here?” Then the backing singers kick in, and so does the audience. Age barriers were broken down and self-consciousness was put aside for a sweat-raising, breath-taking six-minutes. Men and women as old as sixty were back in the Ambassador Theatre thirty years ago, copying Byrne’s motions to a tee. Two twelve year old girls who didn’t want to be there in the first place started smiling and tapping their feet; and everyone, whether they knew the words or not, sang at the top of their lungs and danced, whether or not they knew how. The room echoed with the voices of a hundred and fifty people singing in tongues, consumed by a kind of euphoria I have never seen in a concert before, filmed or live, and unlikely that I will ever see again.
I can’t wait for thirty years down the line when I can tell my kids about the legendary Mermaid Arts Centre viewing of this ground-breaking, energetic, joy-filled film that is, without doubt, one of the best rock movies ever made.
Note: Ensure you remove fragile objects from the general area of viewing, as they may break due to impulsive grooving around.
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