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Stop Making Sense

Review by Jerry White
Posted 15 October 1999


Directed by Jonathan Demme   

Starring Bernie Worrell, 
Alex Weir, Steven Scales, 
Lynn Mabry, Ednah Holt, 
Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, 
Chris Frantz, and David Byrne

I will confess that I felt a little bit of nostalgia for the 1980s when I heard that Stop Making Sense was to be re-released. I don't really think there's anything wrong with this sentimental response, though, because it can be backed up with more substantive arguments. This combination, I think, of the purely sentimental and the coolly argumentative, is what drives the work of the two artists at the heart of this work, David Byrne and Jonathan Demme. Stop Making Sense is not a perfect film, it's not even the best concert film of the 1980s (I'd save that distinction for Tom Waites' Big Time). If you're interested in the culture of the 1980s, though, it's a film you simply have to see, and have to take on its own terms. It won't re-pay any of the smarmy, campy 80s retro attitude that's in vogue right now; instead, it's a monument of excess, anxiety and passion that represents a very odd, and oh-so-rarely wonderful, cultural zenith.

Stop Making Sense is, as I suspect many people know, a concert film of the Talking Heads' tour. The Heads were at the height of their fame and, more importantly, at the height of their craft. Their music of this period was unambiguously pop, this being a few years before lead singer David Byrne would go off on his own and explore the semi-folk/world music pathways of albums like Naked. This meant that the synthesizer riffs are often excessive and occasionally cheesy, and the lyrics careen between enthusiastic and manic. And yet, the Heads' genius lay in their ability to exploit this kind of energy in a way that was vaguely ironic, and yet drew on pop's energy and simplicity and ended up expanding the form. It's difficult to imagine the recent work of REM, or the emergence of Beck, without this period in the Heads' career. Stop Making Sense has as its central project to preserve this moment, in all its lunacy and ambiguity.

Much of this could also be said about the career of Jonathan Demme, and he was certainly the perfect choice to direct the film. Stop Making Sense, keep in mind, was directed by the Demme of Citizen's Band and Something Wild, made well before the birth of the Demme of Philadelphia, The Silence Of The Lambs or Beloved. These two filmmakers aren't totally unrelated, but there is a sort of looniness and excess in this earlier work that's not, shall we say, quite as central in the later stuff. Stop Making Sense, though, is an odd example of Demme's 1980s mindset, and you could even argue that it serves as something of a transition between these two phases. Stylistically it's quite straightforward; indeed, when I first saw the film, several years after its initial release, I felt like it was too stilted, far less innovative than contemporary concert films like Laurie Anderson's Home Of The Brave or the above mentioned Big Time. I felt much the same way about Demme's record of the Spalding Gray monologue Swimming To Cambodia. I'm inclined to judge both of these films less harshly now, and have a much harder time summoning much passion for Home Of The Brave (I still think Big Time is fantastic, but that's another review...). I've developed a respect for Demme's ability to locate someone who's excitable and truly eccentric, and to stand back and just let that person work, all the while documenting them with a careful, sometimes obsessive attention to detail. That's not exactly the aesthetic of Something Wild, but it's equally far from the simple attention to convention that marks Philadelphia. What makes Stop Making Sense a fascinating piece of cinema (and this is also true of Swimming To Cambodia) is Demme's ability to put a viewer inside of Byrne's head in a way that that viewer scarcely notices it's happening. The desire to take a viewer to such a place, and the ability to do it with such care, conveys a spirit that's every bit as maverick and longing as Byrne's.

And at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, there weren't a lot of pop musicians in the 1980s that were more maverick than David Byrne. When I say maverick, I mean it in the sense of someone working within a system in such a way that the system's boundaries begin to stretch to the point that you can hear them creaking, as though they're about to break but never do. There are parts of Stop Making Sense where you have the sense that you're watching a fairly standard, cool-weird pop concert, but there are other moments, never too close together and never lasting too long, that throw this into question. This is why Stop Making Sense also ages so well; it powerfully resists a retro-camp sort of reading. Who's mocking whom, I ask you, when Byrne comes out in his now-legendary "Big Suit"? And where, exactly, can camp get a foothold in the naked, creepy excess that we see in his solo acoustic performance of the Heads' "Psycho Killer," a song left over from their late 70s repertoire? The way that Byrne swings between the extremes in these performances, disorienting everyone in sight (himself seemingly included) was seldom equaled in 80s pop culture.

And truth be told, it was never really equaled in Byrne's other film work. He seems to be covering a lot of the same ground in his feature film True Stories, but that picture ends up feeling forced and pretentious, lacking the grace, exactitude and strategic moderation of Stop Making Sense. That, finally, is what makes it a great concert film; it stands out not just because Byrne is a great performer, or just because Demme is an exceptional documentarian, but because these two artists are working together, their talents synthesized in a way that leads to something they couldn't accomplish on their own.

I suspect that Stop Making Sense is being re-released to cash in on the 80s nostalgia of the hyper-ironic, now yuppie-in-waiting demographic known as Generation-Y. There are worse reasons for re-issuing a film like this, but going into this unstable, strange work with that kind of attitude won't really lead you anywhere interesting. Going in with a desire to see two artists totally at home in a cultural moment otherwise defined by excess and trashiness of the worst sort, though, well then you just might see something close to a redemption of the Reagan era.

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