The stage is empty save for one microphone and a boom box. A man in a gray suit and an acoustic guitar walks up, presses play, and a drum loop begins. The man strums the guitar and sings. The song “Psycho Killer” emerges, and the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense is underway.
The song throws the man around the stage in strange fits. And the man, David Byrne — as skinny as David Bowie in his Thin White Duke period, as possessed as a Southern Baptist minister speaking in tongues, as energetic as a little kid running around his living room — holds the audience, and director Jonathan Demme’s camera, in the palm of his hand. A show is about to begin, one for the ages, and Byrne is in complete control.
Released in 1984 and newly restored and back in theaters from A24 this weekend, Stop Making Sense was filmed in December of 1983 over a three-night stint at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. To be in that venue on those nights, filled with all that joyous sound and raucous energy, must have been something.
But Stop Making Sense is more. It is a composed film where camera placement and stage movement meld to produce something else, something grander. Consider how close the camera is to Byrne as he gracefully dances with the lamp in “This Must Be the Place.” Or the haunting images created through high-contrast lighting during “What a Day That Was.” The massive silhouettes of the musicians — larger-than-life shadow puppets — are absolutely entrancing. Yet, Demme and editor Lisa Day continually return to a close-up of Byrne’s face as he sings, a large bar of black shadow falling across his face. It’s a magnificent shot choice in a movie where the shot selection is simply excellent.
Master of ceremonies
I’m talking a lot about Byrne, which isn’t unusual when it comes to the Talking Heads. Formed at the Rhode Island School of Design, the band started as a three-piece: Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. Jerry Harrison joined a few years later, and their debut, Talking Heads ’77,soon followed.
Creative tension would plague the band’s tenure, eventually breaking them up in 1991, but that’s pushed to the side in Stop Making Sense. Instead, Demme captures the joy between the artists as they make beautiful music together, create positive energy and generally have a good time — especially when singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, percussionist Steve Scales and guitarist Alex Weir join the foursome on stage.
If there’s a false moment to be found, it’s how Byrne introduces the band to the audience. The lead-up is a great moment, with Byrne as master of ceremonies walking behind each of his mates to introduce them to the crowd who applaud and cheer in appreciation. But Byrne never wraps it up with, “And my name’s David, and we are the Talking Heads.” Instead, it goes unspoken and assumed. And in the overwhelming spirit of camaraderie and joy that permeates the show, particularly the rendition of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” in which this moment takes place, it’s a real bummer Byrne didn’t bring it home.
But that’s a small quibble in an otherwise ecstatic enterprise. It’s been four decades since those Stop Making Sense concerts took place, and yet the audience at my screening applauded at the conclusion of “Burning Down the House.” Imagine that: We all sat before a flat screen with no talent present, watching a moment in time captured 40 years ago, and still they couldn’t help expressing their appreciation for being able to experience such a moment. All art should be like that.
ON SCREEN: Stop Making Sense (4K restoration). Various times opening Sept. 28, Cinemark Century Boulder, 1700 29th St. $13