These notes on Stop Making Sense were written by JJ Bersch, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Stop Making Sense will screen on Saturday, September 23 as part of a tribute to the late Jonathan Demme in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.
One take: A stretch of light extends from an opening. Almost instantly and overwhelmingly, a shadow overtakes the light, briefly teasing the head of a guitar before revealing a squeaky clean pair of white sneakers and the shins of a gray-suited figure. After a ten second walk towards a cheering audience, the figure arrives at a microphone, offers a brief greeting, places a boombox on the stage, presses play, and bounces along to the beat. The camera climbs the figure, who is now strumming a guitar and bobbing in a way that only David Byrne, lead vocalist of Talking Heads, has ever bobbed. He sings, “I can’t seem to face up to the facts / I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax / I can’t sleep cause my bed’s on fire.” And then, finally, a 180-degree cut, showing us Byrne’s back as he performs in front of a crowd. The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, and they are going to control our lives for the next 86 minutes.
This is the way Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s peerless 1984 concert documentary stitched together from three Talking Heads performances at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood in December of 1983, begins; this is, however, not exactly the way any of Talking Heads’ shows at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood in December of 1983 began. It’s close—these shows did start with a solo performance of “Psycho Killer”—but as Demme states on the Blu-ray release of the film’s commentary track, the opening shot “is one of a few shots that were done outside of the context of the concert.” Demme identifies this shot as incredibly important—they had to get it right, regardless of “authenticity”—for it builds up from Byrne’s feet in the same way the show will continually build up the band’s sound, adding accompanying musician after accompanying musician until Talking Heads sound bigger than any band before or after ever has. Demme found the perfect complement to Talking Heads’ live show; he just couldn’t do it live, so he didn’t.
This is emblematic of Jonathan Demme’s approach to capturing the live experience of seeing and hearing Talking Heads. Let the band do their thing, but make sure you’ve done everything you can to make sure everyone leaves knowing just how great that thing is, even if you have to stray from the live performance just a little bit to do that. Demme, who sadly passed earlier this year, knew music, and he loved music. His respect for Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and all of the other musicians on stage is palpable in every frame of the film. Demme often lets the band’s work speak for itself—consider the four-and-a-half-minute take of Byrne’s bravura performance of “Once in a Lifetime” or the film’s reliance on wide shots—but the director is not afraid to embellish the ‘Heads with a flourish here and there: the ethereal dissolves of “Heaven,” the shot/reverse-shot call-and-response of “Slippery People,” the mobile camera work of “Girlfriend is Better,” the disarming jump from “Take Me to the River” to the encore performance of “Crosseyed and Painless.” Demme lets Byrne and Company speak for themselves, but they let him speak as well.
Most curiously, Demme withholds cutting to the audience, even drowning them in darkness or shallow focus in many of the shots from the stage that might reveal the watching faces. Demme would use this strategy in his later concert documentaries such as Storefront Hitchcock (1998), Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), and Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016); his rationale for Stop Making Sense, as told to the Los Angeles Times: “When we were editing, we had so much great footage, why cut to the audience? And then there’s a more subtle reason for not showing the crowd—all that ever does is remind the movie viewers that they’re watching a filmed record of a concert. But this way it seems more a concert expressly for them. Our approach takes away that generation of distance, of having to look at people who were really there.” And yet, Demme does eventually cut to said “people who were really there” towards the very end of the film, as he alternates footage of the band performing their final song, “Crosseyed and Painless,” with shots of the audience a total of seven times. A release occurs as the tight grip the band held on the camera dissipates. It is a jarring sequence, but one which aligns the two audiences. These people saw Talking Heads live—my God, they saw that performance of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” in person!—and you didn’t. But because of Demme’s work, that difference doesn’t matter quite so much.