Stop Making Sense represents a reason why theaters matter. In the quiet confines of an IMAX cinema, it’s possible for a brief moment to revisit 1983. Though some movie magic is employed, such as cutting and editing, this concert film featuring Talking Heads keeps alive an instant that will never happen again. The next best thing to actually being there, Stop Making Sense is a chance to see something special in the only place such dreams can become real.
The basic rundown is that the film features a concert by Talking Heads. Such a shallow synopsis, however, does little to emphasize just how magical this movie can be. As a rerelease of a motion picture put out 39 years ago, it’s safe to say that the best observations have already been made. Yet, this lovingly restored 4K HD presentation is stunningly vivid, making it the old film while something entirely new. It’s a window through time connecting now to then.
One almost expects David Byrne to bound off stage to run through theater aisles. Combine that with the 3D immersive sound formats most major theaters are capable of and Stop Making Sense becomes a wondrously engulfing experience. It isn’t simply watching the recording of a concert play out; it feels like being there. But keep in mind, that experience only applies in theaters. Visually, the improved clarity of the recording may come across on small screens streaming. Unfortunately, watching it that way sacrifices exactly what theaters are meant to offer, an encompassing atmosphere accessing the extraordinary.
This rockumentary was first released back in 1984. Award-winning director Jonathan Demme with some serious assistance from visual consultant Sandy Mcleod captured the Talking Heads performing four live shows at the Pantages Theater from December 13th to the 16th in 1983. Lisa Day then expertly edited the footage into the film. According to a recent Q&A with the band at the Toronto International Film Festival, Talking Heads also assisted in the editing by drawing attention to fabulous moments onstage.
The result is a movie that has for years been called the best concert film ever made. Rotten Tomatoes currently has Stop Making Sense certified fresh at 100%. Robert Christgau sang the praises of Demme’s “elegant clarity”, while Jon Pareles wrote for the New Yorker about the “nutty jubilation of the performances.” Pauline Kael wrote back in 1984, “Stop Making Sense is close to perfection.” Around 2021, the Library of Congress added it the National Film Registry which preserves “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant… works of enduring importance” to U.S. culture.
Stop Making Sense isn’t simply a band at the height of their talents, but the way we all want every concert to be. There’s a joyous energy throughout the movie that clearly comes from the thrill of performing as well as the music. Watching this film is witnessing people caught up in a rapturous moment that infects any viewer. Musicians turn into live wires bouncing around throwing out sparks. The audience, oily rags ready to turn into roaring flames. David Byrne pops like water in hot oil, sizzling and snapping like a jagged Jagger. All the while, director Demme keeps a steady eye trained on events, capturing everything.
At its heart, this concert is the strange and the different that is so fully human. Within the vibrant performance is a frenzied alienation as well as quiet bliss. Afrobeat influences from Fela Kuti add rhythm to angst driven non sequiturs about modern existence. Post-punk sensibilities mingle with old-school rap flavors to produce paranoid pieces. However, what Stop Making Sense does so well is convey the haunting emotions in the music more intensely than the albums do alone.
“Psycho Killer” never seems as sinister or sad as it does during Byrne’s opening frenetic performance. “Once in a Lifetime” becomes a frenzied display of someone in the midst of meltdown. And the cover of “Take Me to the River” near the close is what it means to find community in a lonely world.
After all, there’s a narrative sense of exiting isolation throughout Stop Making Sense. The concert opens with David Byrne coming on stage carrying only a guitar and a boombox. With each successive number other performers join him as the set is literally built around them. By the close, the concert has gone from a lone musician to a new wave tribe.
Demme does an amazing job of using simple, clean camera shots to stay focused as events unfold. Cuts rarely jump around, allowing moments to blossom onstage. It’s possible to see bass player Tina Weymouth turn to backup singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt then the whole trio burst into infectious smiles. And of course, there’s the sense of David Byrne being some kind of human perpetual motion machine. Yet, it never seems like someone twitching on drugs. Rather, the animated fervor of someone charged by the magic of music, a feeling audiences will easily catch.
The influence of Talking Heads cannot be exaggerated. Whether directly or indirectly, their material has shaped modern music. Even those relatively unfamiliar with the musicians have likely heard their songs played in innumerable soundtracks from television shows to motion pictures. Unfortunately, due to bad blood between the performers as well as the simple realities of time wearing everyone down, a Talking Heads concert like this is unlikely to ever happen again. That means Stop Making Sense is, in many ways, the only chance to witness them live, an opportunity that shouldn’t be lost or experienced outside the grandeur of a movie theater.