Talking pictures began with a musical—“The Jazz Singer,” in 1927—and the filming of musical performance has been an artistic battleground ever since. With great performers, unadorned recording is a virtue; film plays an archival role in preserving onstage singing and dancing that would otherwise have been lost to history. But movies are an art in themselves, and, when performances are filmed without an aesthetic, the result is numbing, as the up-and-down fortunes of early movie musicals reflect. In the wake of the success of “The Jazz Singer,” the genre was overused and underthought, and soon became box-office poison, until Busby Berkeley reimagined and revitalized it, with the artistry of his highly stylized numbers in “42nd Street” (1933). The conflict endures, especially in the subgenre of concert movies, in which a director’s limited control of the action and of camera placement makes it hard to produce a stylishly cinematic work. One of the few directors to overcome these obstacles and create a concert movie artistically equal to his fiction features is the late Jonathan Demme—with “Stop Making Sense,” his 1984 film of the band Talking Heads in performance. (It is now having a theatrical rerelease, in a new restoration.)
Demme—whether in his previous movies, such as “Citizens Band” and “Melvin and Howard,” or his later and more famous ones, including “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia,” and “Rachel Getting Married”—excelled at tracking the complex interactions of ensemble casts. The same artistic impulse is at the heart of “Stop Making Sense,” which stitches together parts of three Talking Heads performances from December, 1983, at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, to evoke a single concert. With Demme’s dramatic features, the creation of the ensemble was a product of his actor-focussed directorial ethic, but in “Stop Making Sense” he achieves this feeling by creating a distinctive image repertory that emphasizes the band members’ interplay and offers a clear visual manifestation of their connections, both practical and intangible.
The concert begins with the band’s front man, David Byrne, onstage alone, in a light suit and white sneakers, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing “Psycho Killer” over prerecorded beats coming from a boom box beside him. He’s not literally alone (the crew is visible behind him), but, performing by himself with wit and focus, he seems like a piece that fell out of a puzzle. It’s a pregnant performance, highlighting the inadequacy of his solitude, and the movie bursts into life only in the next number, “Heaven,” for which the band’s bassist, Tina Weymouth, joins him. Demme frames the two musicians together: Byrne, emoting in the foreground, and Weymouth in the background, clad in a jumpsuit and keeping an eye on Byrne as she plays.
Meanwhile, the crew wheels a riser and a drum kit onto the stage, to prepare for the next episode, which is launched when the band’s other two founding members walk on: the guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison is coolly professional, but the drummer Chris Frantz, with his polo shirt and his gee-whiz grin, looks like a member of the high-school golf team, gleefully surprised to have been asked to jam with the artsy kids. Demme’s framing adjusts to the configuration, filming diagonally from behind the musicians so that the screen fills with their overlapping and contrasting rhythmic moves—a visual counterpoint to the gallop of “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” and the lope of “Found a Job.” Finally, five recent recruits to the band emerge: the keyboard player Bernie Worrell (a co-founder of P-Funk), the vocalists Lynn Mabry (also from P-Funk) and Ednah Holt, the guitarist Alex Weir, and the percussionist Steve Scales. These five musicians are Black, their sound mostly rooted in funk, whereas the four founding members of Talking Heads are white, and in this convergence the band announces the meeting and melding of styles as the core of its musical and intellectual project. As a nonet, Talking Heads becomes a fervent and rollicking collective with an expanded musical and expressive range, and Demme expands his cinematic vocabulary to match.
There’s a reason that Talking Heads and other musicians who came along in the nineteen-seventies—Blondie, Elvis Costello, Television, the B-52s, and the Ramones—were called New Wave. The term was no mere generational marker. Like the French New Wave filmmakers, these rockers had a historical perspective on their art and included it in their music. Having grown up while rock moved from the disreputable margins to the firmly ensconced mainstream, they inherited a genre whose newfound status emboldened them to make daringly forward-looking music on the basis of their copious inner musical encyclopedia.
Talking Heads, in particular, was fundamentally referential in its approach, quoting from the styles and tones of rock and pop, rather than fully belonging to either. Byrne, for instance, both captured and transfigured the essential loneliness of Roy Orbison’s music. The solitude of Orbison’s music was rooted (or rootless) in wide-open spaces, whereas Byrne’s is a loneliness of plenitude, of isolation amid an inescapable urban crowd and the alienating effects of complex technologies. “Stop Making Sense” catches, in expressive closeups, the self-consciously mechanical gawkiness with which Byrne brings his techno-alienation to life. In “Once in a Lifetime,” he starts repeating himself and then knocks his head to break the loop, as if he were a defective robot.
The band’s expanded lineup in “Stop Making Sense” is similarly self-aware. In the collective imagination, forming a band is one version of redemption from the inner loneliness of the white, suburban middle class. The arrival of five Black funk musicians in the lineup is, artistically speaking, not unlike, say, Jean-Luc Godard’s casting of the American actress Jean Seberg in “Breathless.” Talking Heads was no likelier to make authentic funk than Godard was to make a Hollywood film noir, but each was doing more than paying homage to the unreachable ideal of their influences and inspirations; they were producing art that documented the transformative power of those influences. Once the quintet joins in, the band becomes a mighty machine, which Demme glorifies with panoramic, frontal images, capturing the stage-filling energy. An ever-expanding array of camera angles picks up the almost synaptic connections that are sparked between individual musicians. Byrne’s interactions with Mabry and Holt push his theatrical imagination to a new level of frenzy. After they playfully mime his antics when he runs in place during “Life During Wartime,” he ups the ante and starts running in huge ovals all around the stage. His antiphonal interjections amid the singers’ choral riffs during “Crosseyed and Painless” combine verbal wit with wry touches of gestural invention.
The show has come a long way from Byrne’s lonely opening, but, then, his chilly intensity has always been balanced by the pathos and humor he extracts from his exaggerated awkwardness. Indeed, his theatrical solitude seems Jacques Tati-esque—his dance with a stick lamp in “This Must Be the Place” could even be a “Playtime” reference. (The oversized boxy suit that Byrne wears for several numbers in the film has become iconic, but it’s also superfluous: he’s already expressing its essence in performance throughout the concert.) Demme’s juxtaposition of the solitary Byrne and the thrumming band is expressionistic: Byrne, lit tightly from the side during “Once in a Lifetime,” looks possessed, like a manic preacher; when the gospel eroticism of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” brings the entire band to a peak of ecstatic energy, the cinematography seems to join in, with a rapturous sequence of sharply contrasting angles and vigorous pan shots.
The drama that Demme evokes in “Stop Making Sense” is the artistic self-transcendence that emerges from collaboration in performance. This was an idea whose time had come, and that was being explored almost simultaneously by two other filmmakers: Godard and Chantal Akerman. Godard’s “First Name: Carmen” was an updated adaptation of the opera as a film noir, in which most of Bizet’s music was replaced by Beethoven’s string quartets, performed onscreen and filmed with a daring, painterly sense of visual counterpoint. Akerman’s documentary “One Day Pina Asked . . .,” depicting Pina Bausch and her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, in action, displays a similar attention to the overlaps and intersections between performers. Godard and Akerman might seem like odd company for the far more amiable and artistically temperate Demme—but, in “Stop Making Sense,” he reaches bold extremes in his own artistry. The film not only bears witness to the self-surpassing power of inspired collaboration but, as an art work, also exemplifies it. ♦