Stop Making Sense is, and this is not nearly as common and ubiquitous a statement as you might imagine, a truly singular film experience. Sure, there are great concert films; Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz is very likely a superior concert film with more to say about the nature of music as it exists in the ether. But Stop Making Sense isn’t a concert film, at least in the traditional sense. It is a film about cinema, and about what cinema can do to transform the ethos of a concert beyond what a concert is in person. If this extends it beyond the realm of a concert, it also does more to make us think about what a concert entails as a realm for voyeurism and sociospatial art. Stop Making Sense does not merely hit the mark for a concert film; it transforms it.
And how wonderful it is that all of this formal invention comes from a man like Jonathan Demme, about as idiosyncratic a filmmaker as the modern era has ever known. With the heart of a blasé prestige pic director and the soul of a canny, forward-thinking exploitation director, the variance in his early and latter career is matched only by the way his two greatest achievements hold true to neither period of his work. Specifically, his most popular film, The Silence of the Lambs, is a marriage of both, taking the base qualities of an exploitation film and gussying it up in prestige pic filmmaking. You’d be right to fear that this amalgamation could serve neither master well, cleaning up exploitation to no avail and doing little to cope with the antiseptic qualities of prestige drama except place a bandage of gaudy horror thrills on top. Yet, somehow, it alchemized both, naughty-ing up the serial killer thriller genre and the hearts and minds of mainstream America and mounting up the worse-for-ware qualities of the exploitation genre with genuine filmmaking smarts and quality control. To this day it is the grisliest, most perverse Best Picture winner ever, and overrated though it may be, what a pleasure it is that we can say a movie that heavily features a cannibal has won the Best Picture. And he isn’t even the main antagonist or anything. All The King’s Speechs of the world are excused.
But Stop Making Sense, what a formalists dream! Sure, Demme has made plenty of other concert films in its wake, but none (Neil Young: Heart of Gold excepted, although that film strikes out in a different direction) match it for artistic abandon and the deranged scrawl of Demme’s camera. Who’d a thunk that Demme would have the idea to direct a concert film like an expressionist horror pic or a Southern Gothic short story ripped straight from Flannery O’ Connor or William Faulkner. And who would have thought it would work so well? If Stop Making Sense was nothing but a camera trained on frontman David Byrne surrounded by pure blackness, it would be a stupendous feat all itself. Demme depicts The Talking Heads’ singer not as a human being, but as a puppet cut from its string, flailing around with the idea of humanity and trying to approximate broad gestures of human movement straight from the womb. On his face, we are treated to an expression that could only be known as “blissful bemusement”, if blissful bemusement was an emotion experienced not by human beings but by wild cats on cocaine. The way the lighting captures him, galvanizing his contorted movements in a sea of garish hues, makes him out to be a haunted-house horror show whos gaunt features find him more akin to sketch-work skeleton than flesh-and-bone being.
Yet it is not simply “watch David Byrne flail around on stage”, although, as anyone who has witnessed David Byrne knows, the eye does gravitate toward him against one’s better sense. Demme has his work cut out for him capturing the spirit of the regions around Byrne. Good for him then that he gives it his all, transforming the experience of a concert into performance-art in a vacuum, denying us the pleasures of the audience and casually implicating us as though we are creepily watching the band practice by themselves (and in fact, for a portion of the show, we essentially are). Early on, Byrne is by himself wielding a cassette player, playing music through the device, challenging our conception of “live” music, and even going so far as to critique the idea of a live concert in a film at all. It reminds us that we can never truly experience “being there” in a film, that the distancing lens of a camera always infuses artifice in the music.
However, what we can experience in a concert film, and what so few directors even attempt, is thoroughly alive cinema. Thankfully, Stop Making Sense is never less than thoroughly alive cinema, eschewing the idea of naturalism in music whilst constructing its own performative narrative over the course of dry, barren day to prowling, nocturnal night-time. When the band is on stage in full toward the end of the concert, it has the air of demented storybook fable rather than band performance. Even better, all of Demme’s exploratory film gestures are a perfect, timely fit to the artistic spirit of the tool he has chosen to dissect performative theatrics: The Talking Heads themselves. Egocentric and more than a touch arcane, the majesty of these alt forefathers is found in the way they repackaged contortions and glass cages to approximate genuine pop standards, and Stop Making Sense works because it accentuates their implied “unbalanced toddler” aesthetic. When Byrne begins a solo performance of “Psycho Killer” to open the concert he might as well be one, and the marred adolescence on “Girlfriend is Better” sees the childlike increasingly feel more and more disturbed. When they belt out stadium-filling anthem “Once in a Lifetime,” they – and the filmmaking – make the whole thing feel ghostly and supernatural as far as manipulative melodrama goes.
The band’s secret was that music always seemed a private amusement to them, like they were getting away with something by establishing pop success whilst skulking around in the background, hiding worry and challenge under our noses. Stop Making Sense unleashes them, asking us to follow its title, and depicting its band like a group of acid-casualties who heeded their own word too well. Pop music has never been this creepy, this Lynchian in its deconstructed normalcy. Jonathan Demme understands this fact. His film, and his band, is all the better for it.