A+ List: Stop Making Sense at the Elmwood

Great films can affect you in different ways. Some make you laugh, cry, or think. But the Talking Heads concert movie, Stop Making Sense, makes you want to jump out of your seat and dance. I saw this 1984 film two or three times long ago at the UC Theatre, and people were dancing in the aisles. I bought the DVD as soon as it came out, and rarely remained sitting while I watched it.

My wife and I saw Stop Making Sense last night at the Elmwood. No one danced. I guess we’re getting older. But the audience showed its appreciation with cheers and applause.

As a visually exciting concert film with a beat that brings the audience to its feet, Stop Making Sense belongs on my A+ List of all-time great films.

Stop Making Sense was a major departure from previous rock concert films, including the only other one on my list, The Last Waltz. Sense is not a documentary. There are no interviews, and no sense of an historical moment. It’s a concert created in the editing room, with footage from three actual live concerts.

And yet, The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense have two interesting facts in common (three if you consider that they’re the two best concert films ever made). They were both shot in 35mm – a rarity for financial and practical reasons. And second, they were directed by a major narrative filmmaker: Martin Scorsese for Waltz, and Jonathon Demme for Sense.

But I wouldn’t call Demme the film’s auteur. That title goes to Talking Head lead singer and primary song writer, David Byrne. He set the song list, arranged the choreography, and played the starring role.

And he did them all brilliantly. The film, and the concert, start with an empty stage. Bryne comes on and sings Psycho Killer as a solo. Than bassist Tina Weymouth comes out to join him for Heaven. It takes several songs before all eight musicians are on stage. From there on in, the lights, movement, and music is under Bryne’s powerful control.

As Frank Zappa allegedly said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to talk about music. Talking Heads became big in the late ’70s punk scene – but they’re not punk. Their music sounds like a mix of reggae, funk, art rock, and plain old rock and roll. And, as I think I’ve made clear, the infectious beat goes from your ears to your feet.

Byrne’s dylanesque lyrics leave you wondering what he was thinking when he penned those words. Consider my favorite number in the film, Once in a Lifetime:

And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself, “My God! What have I done?”

But more than any other concert film I’ve seen, Stop Making Sense is a visual experience. The band is constantly dancing, moving in strange ways that look like nothing you’ve ever seen before. No one is overweight in this band; the performance is a full-body workout.

Demme’s cameras captured that performance, finding the right angle for every moment. Often the cameras find little gems of intimacy that couldn’t have been visible to the live audience (who, by the way, we rarely see).

Stop Making Sense will play again tonight (Wednesday night) at the New Parkway, as part of the theater’s Music Week. The audio quality isn’t as good as the Elmwood, but if they play it in their largest auditorium, there’s plenty of room for dancing.